A condensed version of this review was published during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Had it been released twenty years ago, Good Kill, a drama about military unmanned aerial vehicles from writer-director Andrew Niccol, could have made for an intriguing piece of science fiction. Ten years ago, the same combination of concept and creative would have made for an eerily prescient look at the evolution of 21st century warfare away from boots on the ground tactics, to drones in the air permanence. In 2015, though, Niccol’s not so much late to the party in making such a film, as he is the wrong man to host it. “Drones aren’t the future. They’re the right here, right f___ing now,” Bruce Greenwood’s gravelly Colonel Johns instructs at one point, which is as clear and concise a thesis on the subject as Good Kill manages to find.
Niccol’s early work on the likes of Gattaca and The Truman Show proved he was a sharp prognosticator with a pen, and a skilled craftsman with a camera. Even a dud like 2011’s In Time had enough neat little details to make a ridiculous premise engaging in spurts. He has a firm grasp of what science fiction is useful for: exploring current issues through metaphor, or tackling fears for the future head-on. Good Kill wants to grapple with the dehumanization caused by wars fought with computers instead of carbine rifles, but Niccol’s talent is for creating alternate or near-distant realities. When it comes to directly mirroring people and politics of the here and now, his insight is more limited.
Good Kill stars Ethan Hawke as Major Thomas Egan, a veteran of six tours in a fighter jet struggling with his reassignment to drone piloting. Cramped up with his co-pilots for long hours in a space barely bigger than an outhouse, Egan guides drones flying over Afghanistan and the surrounding region from the safety of his shoebox in the Nevada desert. The transition from cockpit to cubicle hasn’t been easy for Egan, or his wife, Molly (January Jones), who knows her husband has checked out, even if Tommy doesn’t.
By the 2010 the film opens on, the drone program is already having adverse affects on Egan and his unit, even before they’re tapped by the CIA to fly off-the-record missions. Greenwood, as Egan’s commanding officer, speaks almost entirely in warrior platitudes (“Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. For us, it’s just war.”), but when he addresses/exposition dumps on new recruits early in the film, an American Flag standing tall behind him as he references pixels and first-person shooters, it’s as though George C. Scott’s monologue from Patton has been updated for a digital era.
The film proceeds to follow Egan as he’s forced to pilot missions that stretch rules of engagement that were already wearing him down. As director, Niccol does some of the best work of his career, despite the constraints Good Kill’s 2.0 approach to warfare poses. For a film that’s most significant action calls for a character to pull a joystick trigger while looking at a computer screen, Good Kill can build to razor wire tension at times. Cutting between the drone’s pixelated perspective and those of the pilots half a world away, the cold remove of seeing targets silently bombed from thousands of feet in the air is devastating in its quietude.
Niccol also draws visual parallels between the deserts Egan spends his days virtually patrolling, and the one he lives in. The color palette shared between Al Qaeda compounds and Vegas suburbs is captured with the same bird’s-eye view, whether looking from a drone’s camera or Niccol’s. When it comes to talk, though, Good Kill breaks the illusion of realism it often strikes visually. The supporting characters exist almost exclusively to chime in with ethical discussions about their work, which would be all well and good if their work were a fantasy. But the dialogue is written with the kind of wordplay flourishes and snappy patter that lends itself to pure entertainment, not believable or thoughtful debate of one of the most contentious military policies to ever exist.
While the secondary characters are busy lobbing out political talking points, it’s Egan’s burden to carry the psychological load of the film. Hawke, an actor better at implying a tortured existence than actually expressing one, gets underserved by Good Kill’s singular narrative aim of tightening the vice it has Egan’s soul in. Unbelievably, the usually rigid Jones creates maybe the most wholly embodied character of the film, as the emotional strain faced by a military wife excluded from her husband’s work is completely compartmentalized from the thorny issues at Good Kill’s center.
The complicated nature of drone warfare is ripe for exploration on film, and Good Kill occasionally plays like one that handles it thoughtfully. In a quiet scene of Egan looking longingly at the jets he used to fly, it’s hard not to think of the changes to the world and warfare since Top Gun made the weapon a symbol of American superiority 30 years ago. More often, though, the mix of creator and material is too incompatible, all the way through to a finale that tries to save Egan by shrugging at the duty that has destroyed him. If Niccol’s point is that delicate operations require the right set of hands at the controls, Good Kill certainly makes it hard to disagree.
In the face of such a weighty topic, Niccol proves a poor co-pilot for himself, as Good Kill's script fails to live up to a strong directorial effort.