“Good Kill” Explores the Ethics of Drone Strikes

John Hanlon
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Posted: May 23, 2015 12:01 AM
“Good Kill” Explores the Ethics of Drone Strikes

Good Kill is a morally-ambivalent and ambitiously-raw drama about drone strikes and the ethics of such attacks. Set during 2010 (which, as the film tells us, was the “greatest escalation of targeted killings” via drones), the movie recounts one soldier’s growing discontent with piloting unmanned aerial vehicles.

Andrew Niccol, who previously wrote Gattaca and The Truman Show, both directed and wrote the screenplay which is based on true events. Instead of coming down on one side of the debate or the other, he puts viewers in the center of the situation as he focuses his story on Major Thomas Egan, played by the talented Ethan Hawke (Boyhood).

Egan is a heroic veteran who served six tours of duty overseas but is now serving in Las Vegas, where he remotely pilots the drones that target terrorist threats in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. Being a drone pilot was never an ideal situation for him but he’s been doing it for years hoping that one day he’ll have a chance to really fly again. As his commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) notes though, drones are the way of war today.

“Drones aren’t going anywhere,” he notes. “In fact, they’re going everywhere.”

After a deadly mistake, the CIA takes control of the drone program and starts to command Egan to do things he is quietly uncomfortable with. The team Egan works on is ambivalent about some of their new missions. Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz), who works next to Egan, becomes extremely conflicted when she realizes that the collateral damage of civilian deaths is going to become a normal occurrence for the team. M.I.C. Joseph Zimmer (Jake Abel), who also works on the team, argues with her worldview— noting that terrorists don’t think about civilian deaths when they are targeting our citizens.

Both points of view remain sturdy throughout the proceedings, but it’s Egan’s views that Niccol seems most interested in. Hawke delivers one of his quietest, but most profound performances as Egan. At his core, Egan is a strong patriotic military man who simply wants to fight the enemy overseas. “I’m a pilot and I’m not flying,” he says in desperation to his underwritten wife (January Jones).

If you think that this is one of those films where the main character starts out as pro-drone strikes and ends it as an anti-drone strike activist, think again. The movie, like the subject it focuses on, is more complex than that.

As a writer, Niccol does a commendable job showing how government officials in D.C. often micromanage the battle plans. Once the CIA takes control of the drone program, for instance, an official (voiced by Peter Coyote) starts dictating the drone team’s orders over the phone. Niccol cleverly never shows the official’s face. The audience only hears the voice decide which targets need to be eliminated and how much collateral damage is reasonable for their missions. When the drone team targets a community in Yemen, he even coldly notes that “the war on terror has become borderless.”

We know, from news reports, how true that statement is.

Good Kill isn’t a war movie in the sense that Saving Private Ryan was a war movie or that Braveheart was a war movie. It’s a war movie about the way wars are being fought now and the questions that our reliance on drone strikes raise.

As Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns notes, “Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. That’s not up to us. To us, it’s just war." Niccols lets the viewer decide where he stands on these issues.

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