Andrew Niccol’s latest might be viewed as presenting the flipside to the earnest and venerable combatant approach of Eastwood’s American Sniper. Unfortunately, while Good Kill has a clear moral and political point of view, in contrast to Eastwood’s contextual ambivalence, it is every bit as clumsy in its storytelling.
Niccol has a knack for picking provocative subject matter, but his ability to show restraint and finesse in exploring these ideas has generally been patchy. He comes up short in Gattaca (eugenics) Lord of War (the arms trade), S1m0ne (the monster media machine) and In Time (the haves and have nots). Good Kill knows all the arguments about drone warfare. It even has Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood, gluing the film together) rehearsing them in an entirely unsubtle manner at every opportunity (“Make no mistake about it, this ain’t Playstation. We are killing people”).
Co-pilot Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) inhabits the similarly obvious conscience role (the lily-livered liberal who even delivers the immortal “I didn’t sign up for this”) in response to her red-bloodedly patriotic colleagues Zimmer (Jake Abel) and Christie (Dylan Kenin). And then there’s becalmed Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke, making his third picture with Niccol), the on-the-surface rock but slowly-revealed burnt out. His moral fragmentation comes somewhere in the middle, as the ex “proper” pilot who just wants to get back in the cockpit of a fighter (“I don’t know what I am doing, but it’s not flying”).
Niccol makes some curious and ham-fisted choices. He’s keen to emphasise gradations of justification that don’t really fly (so to speak). At one end of the scale is CIA Langley (voiced by an unseen Peter Coyote), full of studied rhetoric but basically “collateral damaged be damned”. Anyone, anywhere in the Middle East may end up as an unfortunate casualty in the mission to eradicate the enemy. Women, children, funeral mourners, people gathered talking on a dusty road. At least the military has some standards in comparison, Niccol is saying. At least they (as in Colonel Johns) agonise over their actions and go home knowing their intentions were good (except those, like Zimmer and Christie who just want to kill anyone and everyone over there, lest they come over there and destroy everything America stands for).
On the far end is the actual “good kill”. At the climax, Egan, already demoted for purposefully fouling up a Langley mission, locks himself in the control centre and blows up the Afghan rapist who has been offending his and his fellow pilots’ sensibilities throughout (even Zimmer averts his eyes, so what this guy is doing really is bad). It’s a triumphant moment. Egan has done right. Killed someone who really deserved it. Has he? That seems to be the message. Niccol even has the cynicism to pull out a particularly queasy moment of tension where Egan might have accidentally killed the rape victim too. But no, she’s okay. Phew. It might have served the message of the movie better if she had died. Instead Niccol encourages false uplift in a conclusion that is shamelessly emotionally manipulative.
It also makes the picture, hardly a model of restraint in the first place, seem all the more jarring and obvious in retrospect. The varied jargon used to distance the perpetrator from unprovoked acts of aggression (pre-emptive self defence is a particularly deceitful item), and avoid confessing to what is actually being ordered, initially seems quite piercing but becomes much less so as the picture progresses.
Egan hits the bottle to like a dyed in the wool alcoholic but appears completely functional and quits with nary a withdrawal symptom. His home life dynamic (January Jones as his wife, in a big screen career that suggests her agent has something against her) is entirely clichéd, but it’s Hawke who is most problematic. He’s the stoic aviator-shades wearing seasoned serviceman, but he still carries the nervy air of his Todd Anderson from Dead Poets Society, only now slightly more desiccated.
Which isn’t to say the picture isn’t engaging. It is to be respected for being more economically told and more focussed than American Sniper. But it’s ultimately no more laudable. There is one aspect where Niccol wholly succeeds, and that’s the incongruity of the Vegas milieu from which these drone missions are fought. He convincingly portrays a life that is both repetitive and banal and psychologically and emotionally wearing. The pilots enter shipping crates in an expanse of sun-drenched tarmac for each shift, transported to a warzone thousands of miles away. They emerge into the calm of the Las Vegas desert, and then drive home to deceptively normal lives.
This dissonance is palpable, and much more resonant than any of the verbalised arguments for and against in carrying the idea and question of just what this is. Killing with impunity, from the safety of, and divorce from, the battlefield. This might be presented as merely the latest stage in an incremental shift that has been occurring ever since the invention of the bow and arrow but, the more removed and detached the capability becomes (and the more casually civilian fatalities are brushed off), the less easy it is to frame an argument that satisfies such methods (be it legal war or illegal “but justifiable” incursion).
Niccol laces occasional moments of effective humour through the picture (“I blew away six Taliban in Pakistan today and now I’m going home to barbecue”, Egan tells a cashier; “Why do wear flight suits?” he asks Johns, genuinely baffled; at one point Zimmer opines that the reason they aim to kill so many Afghanis is that the alternative of torturing them would cost too much), but one can’t help think the surreality of this environment would have been better served by the kind of outright irreverence shown by Gregor Jordan in Buffalo Soldiers. Either that, or stripped right down to a minimal level, allowing the absurd ambience to do the talking rather than characters’ overstated interactions. Good Kill frequently feels thin and didactic despite a surfeit of ripe material to explore.