Good Kill opens very similarly to American Sniper – with a women and child caught in a cross hair, but where Chris Kyle found himself on the backline with a sniper, Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) couldn’t be further away: piloting a drone in Afghanistan from an air-conditioned cubicle near his home in Las Vegas.For those unfamiliar with the workings of drones this world seems like science-fiction, but as the Colonel informs a bunch of new recruits – ‘This is not the future but the here and fucking now’. And this is set 5 years ago. Small teams of uniformed airman climb into freight containers and sit in front of a screen with two joy-pads launching attacks on Taliban 7000 miles away like some sinister back-alley arcade.
Egan scans for targets, locks and fires – counting down the moment of impact. The small figures on the monitor are engulfed by clouds of smoke. There is no audio, instead they flatly announce the hit – ‘Splash’… this does not sound like an explosion. Looking on through a screen they are far removed from the experience, us watching the film doubly so. If the low-stakes wager of killing people without ‘skin in the game’ is displacing for Egan, then we can’t help but find this micro-sized, muted attack uninteresting after a while. This is the point. We are becoming desensitised and uncaring – we are becoming in essence perfect recruits. Then all that’s left for the team to do is to tally the dead and deliver the empty, oxymoronic slogan – ‘Good Kill’.
There is something of writer director Andrew Nichols previous work here, not just Lord of War but elements of The Truman Show are in the strange contained suburbs of the soldiers families, and the ominous all seeing eye-in-the-sky. One of the more subtle anti-drone arguments made to highlight the likeness of American citizens and enemy forces is in the crooked God’s eye view that captures Egan at home, the wider shots showing mostly desert, reminding us of an image that we have seen many times already… just before the Splash.
Struggling to reconcile the morality of killing people without risk, ex-fighter pilot Egan and new recruit Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) are faced more directly with the dilemmas imposed by this new kind of warfare when they are selected to take direct orders from the CIA. As is clear from the title, this film is concerned with whether drone warfare is right – or justifiable. Where American Sniper was unflinchingly certain of its hero and the enemies he executed, Good Kill couldn’t be more opposed, focusing instead on the doubts and the casualties of war.
It sounds like a Daniel Tosh joke manifest: ‘We owe it to our troops to let them sleep in their own beds, wake up in the morning, have a delicious breakfast, and drive to war’. The reality is stark.
The arguments made throughout are all legitimate but so heavy-handed that they take you out of the film. It is impressive that such a stance has been taken, set during the escalated drone attacks in 2010 but nonetheless timely, a needed breath of fresh air from the flag-waving fair that we have become accustomed to. This is what makes Good Kill all the more frustrating.
For some characters it makes sense to be entering a debate but for others it feels like an obvious, sometimes laughable, device – the on-the-nose lines from Egan’s wife during an argument with her husband come on stronger than the Colonel’s recruitment speech. There is a time and a place and unfortunately the constant debate and half clever wordplay stands in for most of the dialogue and interferes with any real character development.
Though the drone angle is new and the anti-war stance is admirable, the film slips back into cliché melodrama when showing how Egan is torn apart by alcoholism and paranoia – this despite being able to drive home to a family bbq after a long day at war. Maybe this is the point but it becomes tired and predictable. It is a shame that more time wasn’t devoted to creating a character worth caring about so it could been a little cleverer with its message. Regardless this is a bold film that needed to be made.