Good Kill drowns its moral message on drone war with too much exposition — a film review
May 23, 2015
There’s nothing wrong with morally conscious movies. The problem arrives when morality overshadows character development and overtakes narrative. Good Kill is one of those films that drowns its drama with its own good intentions. The film takes place in 2010 and is “based on actual events,” and man, are we are continuously reminded of that. Writer/director Andrew Niccol never takes the film beyond a tiresome list of questions of morality, carefully bullet-pointed to address nearly every issue of our post-Sept. 11 world. Niccol is once again working with Ethan Hawke, who last appeared in Niccol’s much more interesting war satire Lord of War (2005). In this grimly serious look at warfare, Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a frustrated Air Force pilot grounded in the Nevada desert as part of a team piloting a lethal drone over Afghanistan.
Instead of physically flying above his targets, Egan works out of an air-conditioned trailer. The effect for this former F-16 fighter pilot is profound on many levels. Working warfare 9 to 5 and returning home every night to a wife (January Jones) and two kids and a bottle of vodka under the bathroom sink cannot be good for this man’s mental stability. Also, there’s a psychological complexity to the circumstance of being an invisible, untouchable killer in the skies. “At 10,000 feet, even if she looked straight at us, she couldn’t see us,” whispers Egan to a colleague. But there’s another irony. As an F-16 pilot dropping bombs, he flew past targets he could barely see as humans. With drone technology, he can now virtually make out his targets’ faces and has time to spare to count the pieces of humanity left after a missile strike.
Niccol keeps the action on the pixellated boxes transmitted by the drone’s cameras, but it’s enough to feel the humanity half a world away. It’s about the horror of what these soldiers bear witness to from a distance. There’s a God complex with the fragility of humanity here. It’s a harsh burden to bear. It’s a strong point powerfully and simply made. They use language that speaks to the distance of their actions, when a missile hits in a startling cloud of smoke, a team member announces, “splash.” If it’s on target, Egan announces, “Good kill.” Over his shoulder, a moral voice comes from Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), who somberly intones, “They don’t call it hell fire for nothing.” But dialogue like that is also where problems arise. The script spends too much time focusing on informing the circumstances of this part of the War on Terror. Every single argument against drone warfare is not just on-screen but explicated to the audience over and over by the film’s protagonists.
Conscientiousness is raised a notch with the addition of Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) and M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer (Jake Abel) who join Egan on missions for the CIA, whose tactics are less concerned about collateral damage. “Did we just commit a war crime, sir?” Suarez asks the colonel with grim cynicism. Then it’s off to lunch. After an argument referencing Hamas, the disdain for the U.S. in countries like Afghanistan and Sept. 11, Zimmer walks away from the table calling Suarez “Jane Fonda.” There’s only one way for them to get along better, as suggested by Suarez: a night out in Vegas. This is one of those small details that needs a strong actor to pull off. But Kravitz has yet to rise above her status as the descendant of a more famous person. Though she gives a widely modulated performance, she does not meld the character shifts demanded of her. After an ethically circumspect mission, she allows a single tear to roll down her cheek, while she assesses the aftermath. Later that night, she gets close and flirty with Egan. It’s classic Eros and Thanatos and totally conceivable, but the way Kravitz plays it, Suarez feels like two characters instead of two sides of the same person.
From his anguished relationship with his wife to his anxiety at his job, there is little ambiguity that Thomas is unhappy with his life. Hawke’s character has little space to develop, but he does tap into the humanity of Egan below is discontent. He most genuinely reveals himself in his shaky countdowns to firing the missile trigger. If he’s hard to read at times, it’s because he does “look miles away,” a phrase his wife Molly, ably played by Jones, uses more than once. The only time he flies is in his dreams. Hawke morosely channels the misery of a fighter pilot who has had his wings clipped.
The idea of exploring drone strikes as an action movie is commendable, but the script by Niccol is overstuffed with crutches that compromise its stakes. The film has excellent ideas. The best of which is how focused the movie is on domestic malaise and the idea of “distance” from war atrocities that might compromise a man’s moral compass.Though Niccol makes the right move visually by keeping to the POV of the drone pilots, he seems just as trapped as they are in executing the movie. Niccol just doesn’t seem to figure out or trust what he can do with action. The filmmaker once showed great talent as a writer/director, but he has not delivered a strong movie since Lord of War, and his freshest, best work (Truman Show  and Gattaca ) remains far in his past. It feels a bit futile hoping for anything better from this writer/director.
I had some hope for Good Kill, but it just felt like a slog, unfortunately weighed down by too much exposition, heavy-handed if sometimes clumsy character development and a startling plot development at film’s end that unforgivably compromises its message. While some might misconstrue the film’s final scene as heroic, everything before it reveals the moment as a nadir with a mixed message that compromises any sympathy for the film’s main character. It could have swung in two different ways and plays with suspense in an almost trivial, manipulative manner, cheapening the film’s tone. Unfortunately, it goes the way of catharsis for all the wrong reasons and ultimately compromises the film’s message. The moral questions become heightened in a way that feels disingenuous and more concerned with pleasing the crowd above exploring what justice means in war. It feels like a big cop-out disguised as open-ended finale.
Good Kill runs 103 minutes and is rated R (expect disturbing images at a distance, cursing and I&I — “Intoxication and Intercourse,” as Lt. Colonel Jack Johns explains it). It opened this Friday, May 22, in our Miami area at MDC’s Tower Theater and the Cosford Cinema and in Broward at both Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. It’s also now on VOD. IFC provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are also courtesy of IFC.