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New Release Review - Good Kill

An airforce drone pilot becomes disillusioned with his job.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Andrew Niccol

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kravitz, January Jones



Kiwi writer-director Andrew Niccol has spent most of his creative career in the realm of speculative sci-fi. Early works like Gattaca and The Truman Show won Niccol plaudits but since then he's struggled, delivering a series of mediocre (In Time, Simone) to downright awful (The Host) sci-fi flicks that failed to live up to their high concepts. With Good Kill he swaps future dystopia for that of the present (or at least 2010), exploring the controversial issue of the US military's increasing use of unmanned drones.
I say unmanned, but of course, these things don't fly themselves. Good Kill takes place in a US Airforce compound on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where young 'pilots', many recruited for their gaming skills, spend long shifts in prefabs operating drones in far off theatres of war. Not so young is Thomas (Ethan Hawke),a veteran F16 pilot reassigned to drone piloting. Though his new role allows him to see his wife and kids every day, and keeps him out of harm's way, Thomas wants nothing more to get back behind the controls of a real plane. When the CIA begin to issue orders that increasingly blur the lines between a military campaign and that of terrorists, Thomas becomes increasingly disturbed by his work, turning to alcohol and placing his career and marriage in jeopardy.
Once again Niccol has managed to fudge an intriguing premise. The movie clearly disapproves of the use of drones, but in a hypocritical fashion. Thomas seems more troubled about not commandeering an F16 than the many civilians he 'kills good'. We get the impression he believes in a Victorian sense of nobility in battle, that somehow killing with a manned jet fighter is less immoral than doing so with an unmanned drone. I'm pretty sure it makes no difference whatsoever to the victims. With Thomas's years of experience, surely he could get a pilot's job in civil aviation? But he makes no attempt to leave the airforce, preferring to mope about while knocking back vodka and driving his family away from him.
Niccol has a bizarre view of how the military operates. Thomas is allowed turn up for work every day reeking of booze and with his fresh wounds bandaged up without any of his superiors reprimanding him. As his commanding officer, Bruce Greenwood dismisses Thomas's worries with the "You'll be fine" attitude of an anxious plumber at 4:59pm. In Niccol's mind, the US military doesn't seem to employ any psychologists.
There is some interesting material here, chiefly in the exploration of how manning a drone creates a personal relationship with your target in a way flying a fighter plane doesn't. In the latter case you drop your load and get out of there, but with a drone you stick around to survey the damage wrought, often ordered to carry out a 'follow up', a fancy way of asking you to massacre whoever shows up at the scene of destruction. A subplot involving Thomas's growing obsession with a random Taliban fighter, who carries on a campaign of sexual abuse against a local woman ("He's a bad guy; he's just not our bad guy"), is by far the most enticing aspect of the movie. Far less interesting is the detailing of Thomas's disintegrating home life, a series of "Even when you're here, you're not here" arguments that we've seen in every movie dealing with military personnel lately.
As though worried his audience might fall asleep, Niccol injects some bizarre details into the film, like the constant come-ons from Thomas's young co-pilot (Zoe Kravitz, struggling to bring dignity to the role while delivering lines like "I may not be an airman, but I am first class") and a baffling moment when, in a drunken rage, Thomas pulls the handle of a one-armed bandit, which laughably comes up with the jackpot of three 7s.
There's a good movie waiting to be made on this subject, but Good Kill certainly isn't it.




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