When cinema reflects current conflicts, a certain aesthetic typically develops, and “Good Kill,” Andrew Niccol’s drone strike-era drama, makes a convincing case for the next phase of that evolution. Gone are the shell-shocked, grimy faced soldiers of the World Wars, as are the sweating, hallucinating grunts of Vietnam or Korea, wading through swamps with guns held over their heads. Modern war is waged on quiet screens, where crosshairs wander over satellite images of desert villages with sandy streets and over children playing football and women in black burqas sweeping courtyards. And every now and then, someone sitting in an air-conditioned box on a Nevada Air Force base 7,000 miles away taps a joystick and part of that picture explodes, still eerily silent, in a cloud of fire and dust that slowly clears to reveal scattered body parts and flattened structures. From this distance, it all looks so fragile — from this distance, it is. Niccol’s film takes a somber, nuanced and compelling look at the War on Terror as it is waged by U.S. drone pilots, right up until a final five minutes that, in a shower of pat resolutions and worrisome conclusions, delivers something of a surgical strike on its credibility.
Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke, in one of his best recent performances to date) is an Air Force major who having served many tours of duty has been assigned to be the trigger man in a small unit of drone operators. He longs to fly again, though his wife Molly (January Jones) wonders why he can’t be happy in this position as he can spend more time with his family. His commanding officer Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood, an actor rarely out of uniform) brings in a new co-pilot, Suarez (an excellent Zoe Kravitz) just before the unit is put under the aegis of the CIA to run off-the-books missions that are not subject to the same due process as standard military procedure. Soon, the mounting collateral damage and despicable tactics he’s ordered to employ (blowing up mourners at a funeral; killing the people who are trying to dig survivors from the rubble of the last attack) take their toll on the slow-burning Egan, and he withdraws from his wife and starts to drink heavily.
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What could be yet another war-is-hell film is for most of its running time characterized by a sense of authenticity and a laudable refusal to paint any of its issues in black and white. The movie can feel overly talky, but even the especially chatty Greenwood gets to deliver quotably succinct lines that give his character, a disillusioned but dedicated officer, a respectful depth and an unusual thoughtfulness. “Genghis Fucking Khan couldn’t hold Afghanistan” he says at one point, before resignedly issuing the next order; on two occasions, we see him addressing new recruits with a rehearsed speech in which he emphasizes that while “war is now a first-person shooter,” there are real lives at stake on the other side of that screen. But some others of the supporting characters come off as little more than mouthpieces for opposing views, like Zimmer, the gung-ho “kill them all” member of the unit who seems to experience no qualms about the rectitude of what they’re ordered to do.
However, for the most part, the film focuses on the responses of Egan and Suarez. She is vocal about her distaste for the CIA-ordered operations —“Was that a war crime?” she asks bluntly at one point— but it is Egan within whom the pressure is building. With the further deterioration of his homelife and no prospect of returning to the skies, Egan has our rapt sympathy at this point. But even that can’t compensate for the film’s wrongheaded conclusion.
It’s an ending that almost feels studio-mandated, as though a truer conclusion was shot but judged to be too much of a downer and hastily replaced. It’s a great shame, because in marked contrast to the film’s logical, somber, thoughtful tone, the swelling music and the everything’s-gonna-be-okay atmosphere at the end is not only morally dubious, it’s totally disingenuous. What presumably faces Egan after he zooms off into the sunset is not reunion, reclamation, and redemption, but a deserved court-martial that would probably lead to some equally deserved jail time, if we are to retain any faith at all in the rule of law within the armed forces. Without showing, or even hinting at these consequences, not just to his person but also to his soul — to his sense of himself as a moral human — “Good Kill” entirely sells out the subtlety and the gray-area approach that it has taken so carefully up till then. In fact, it hints, horrifyingly, that playing God may have actually been the right thing to do.
There is a more depressing and but far more truthful version of this story that ends without suggesting that because a certain woman gets up again after a drone missile strike, somehow this errant soldier has salved his conscience and “found himself.” As compromised as his actions have been up to that point, by crossing that final line, Egan is now, surely, more lost than ever. [B-]