In Good Kill, filmmaker Andrew Niccol seizes on an unnerving and ever-relevant subject. It’s one thing to read of U.S. drone strikes daily in the papers and quite another to watch even simulated images of American pilots cramped in bunkers bombing Afghanistan, via consoles that resemble video games in aesthetic as well as mode of functioning. Real people are killed as casually as pixels in an Xbox game, and that distancing, yet another manifestation of the social media-enabled detachment that characterizes the amorality of modern life, arrives with an obvious, staggering price tag attached. With great ease comes little responsibility or accountability. If bombing 30 people from 10,000 feet above is a risk-free endeavor for the bombers, then it matters less to them, living half a world’s away, whether or not those people pose an authentic threat to their domain.
Logically, Niccol has fashioned from this subject matter a chamber drama that reflects the tight confines of the drone pilot’s trailer. Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a major in the U.S. Air Force who’s flown six tours in the War on Terror and is now uneasily resigning himself to a job at a console in Las Vegas. Despite the safety of his new occupation, and his newfound proximity to his wife, Molly (January Jones), and children, Thomas is beginning to exhibit signs of PTSD, most explicitly in his drinking, aloofness, and inability to sleep. The guilt spurred from the physical ease of the assignment is wearing Thomas down, as he misses the risk of actual flight, which blurs the political uncertainties of his part in the war through the sheer visceral fight-or-flight sensations of battle. In physical warfare, Thomas is extending his opponents the etiquette of endangering his own life; now, he can’t live with what he deems to be the cowardice of long-distance warfare.
Niccol has awkwardly shoehorned in broad talking points from various sides of the drone controversy. There are a few boorish soldiers who somewhat ironically speak of God being good while parroting the traditional sentiments of this endless war being a case of us or them. A pretty, sensitive soldier, Vera (Zoë Kravitz), says that the United States is the biggest enabler for international terrorism, with its paranoid, sometimes arbitrary killing that serves to further destabilize already anarchic regions. Eventually, the C.I.A. takes command of the Air Force, and commences ordering a series of killings (euphemistically deemed “persecutions”) that are of highly debatable justification morally and even strategically. Ambiguously straddling the line between right and left ideologies is Thomas’s superior, Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), who strains to maintain sanity within his unit by simultaneously accommodating each pilot’s sensibility.
Like other Niccol films, particularly Gattaca, Good Kill is about an essential innocent who dreams of release from a highly structured, classist, and hypocritical environment. Niccol is a mediocre dramatist, but a shrewdly minimal stylist; his sleek, streamlined images complement his blunt, occasionally caustic dialogue (a police officer says, “How’s the war on terror going?”—to which Thomas responds, “About as well as your war on drugs”), achieving an alienating effect that serves to emotionally express the disconnection felt by soldiers who’ve become little more than the sort of middle-class cubicle jockeys that they used to hold in contempt. The filmmaker often shoots the cookie-cutter Vegas suburb where Thomas lives from an overhead bird’s-eye view that likens it to the images of the Afghan villages that Thomas and his co-pilots bomb daily, and there are startling voyeuristic sequences following an Afghan rape and its consequences. Niccol’s greatest effect, however, is the time that he chillingly allows to elapse between the pulling of Thomas’s joystick trigger and its corresponding silent explosion on the video monitor, which serves as a succinct physicalizing of the gulf that now exists between destruction’s origin and conclusion.