UK Release Date: 10th April 2015
Runtime: 102 minutes
Director: Andrew Niccol
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood, Jake Abel
Synopsis: A military pilot becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his new role as the man behind the controls of an unmanned drone carrying out fatal attacks in the Middle East.
The issue of modern forms of warfare has been a major theme of cinema in 2015, with the Oscar-nominated American Sniper depicting the raw wounds of the Iraq War. Even more timely is Gattaca director Andrew Niccol’s tense, complex drama Good Kill, which centres on the move from “boots on the ground” fighting to unmanned drone warfare.
Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a former military pilot now stationed at the controls of an unmanned drone hovering above the Middle East. His lack of interest in the sterile action causes friction with his wife Molly (January Jones) and his commanding officer, Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood). When idealistic young woman Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) joins the team and the CIA start exercising control over their operations, Egan seriously questions his place.
In many ways, Good Kill is the complete antithesis of American Sniper. Whilst Eastwood was content to sit back and allow audience patriotism to frame his film, Niccol’s film takes a fairly unambiguous anti-drone stance. This is a film in which war is scrutinised and is exposed as an institution in which collateral damage is waved away with the two darkly nonchalant words of the title.
| "Drones aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re going everywhere."
At the centre of it all is Ethan Hawke’s deeply unsympathetic protagonist. He is a distant, abrasive man who has been almost completely hollowed out by his work. Hawke dials down his natural charm and works almost entirely with his face, conveying a life of trauma with his eyes rather than with dialogue.
It’s Hawke’s face that feels like the epicentre of the film given how much of the film takes place within the claustrophobic walls of the drone control booth. Just as Hawke has no escape from the horrors unfolding on his screen, the audience too is trapped, powerless to prevent what’s happening. Niccol’s direction is unshowy in Good Kill, forcing the audience to watch and digest the stark simplicity of drone attacks, whether the targets are weapon-toting terrorist leaders or crowds of civilians.
There is real tension in these sequences. Niccol and Hawke, reuniting after working together on Gattaca, reap the benefits of their bare bones approach with several genuinely gruelling scenes of violence. It’s an excellent inversion as the uniformed men who would usually be working to save the people on screen are instead forced to watch them die in the same way as the audience is.
| "Was that a war crime, sir?"
Unfortunately, for all of its ideology and intelligence, Good Kill loses its way a little outside of the booth. January Jones makes a decent fist of her “military wife” role, but she’s written far too thinly. Bruce Greenwood’s veteran speaks entirely in slightly clunky soundbites and a romance plot involving Zoe Kravitz’s intensely moral rookie is entirely unnecessary.
Good Kill is at its best when it’s at its most simple. It’s a film that takes a viewpoint and uses it to make a point about the nature of war. And there isn’t a fake baby in sight. Take that, Clint.
Pop or Poop?
It might not have the bruising action sequences of other war films, but Good Kill is a nuanced and delicately acted warning over the perils of relying on drone warfare.
Niccol is less sure-footed when he leaves his central theme, but Ethan Hawke is a strong central performer and there’s enough narrative meat to chew on. It’s just a shame about some of the soap opera plotting.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.