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.