Good Kill **1/2

It’s crazy to think video games have turned into real war

Is it worth $10? Yes

Is it okay to be cowardly if you're saving lives?

The premise of "Good Kill" focuses on aerial drone attacks in the Middle East that are remotely flown from an air-conditioned trailer in Las Vegas. The benefits to U.S. military personnel are obvious: Pilots aren’t in danger, multiple points of view are provided, and the enemy never knows when a strike is imminent.

“Drones aren’t going anywhere,” Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) says, adding, “in fact, they’re going everywhere.” It is not a mistake that as he speaks behind Johns is an oversized American flag, and in front of him is a room of eager soldiers. Writer/director Andrew Niccol is clearly channeling the similar “call to arms” speech in “Patton” (1970), and that evocation alone is enough to remind us how much the art of war has changed since World War II.

The fact that Johns later admits the technology was inspired by X-Box is not a surprise. Logically, this seems like a win for all involved except the targets. But what’s difficult to assess is the psychological toll it takes, and how the murder of individuals 10,000 miles away who never see it coming in some way feels…unjust. Unfair. Just plain wrong. Is it an act of cowardice to kill someone from so far away? The reality is the enemy wouldn’t hesitate to kill if the American soldier was in their presence, and it’s not American soldiers’ fault their technology is more evolved. Still, it can be a tough moral pill to swallow.

For Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), everything about remote controlling the destruction of human life is awful. He served six tours of duty as an F-16 pilot in the Middle East, and he yearns to get back up in the air. His PTSD is exacerbated by excessive drinking and orders he finds increasingly difficult to follow. Ordinarily soldiers long to be home with their families when deployed; he sees his wife (January Jones) and kids every night and couldn't be more miserable. But how do you make that switch? Tom goes from killing supposed terrorists and whatever civilians are unlucky enough to be in the vicinity to, a short drive later, trying to be a good dad to his wife and kids. Compartmentalization is one thing, but that’s a tough, tall order for anyone. 

Ironically, Tom has in a way become a terrorist. He carries out attacks that he knows will murder innocent civilians, and he does it because he’s following orders. And, for what it’s worth, he also lives in a desert. His fellow soldiers (Zoe Kravitz, Jake Abel, Dylan Kenin) each deal with the ethicality of their actions in their own way, and none are an asset to Tom, who believes the only way he can be happy again is to get back up in the air.

“Good Kill” is different than the war movie we're used to, and fascinating because it feels feasibly real. Hawke gives the character just enough emotion to make it clear that he’s getting torn apart from within – this is a master class in restraint, and is impressively effective. But the movie overall is a bit dull. Mental anguish is a tough thing to convey on screen, and regardless of Hawke’s best efforts Niccol doesn’t always succeed in making it captivating. Still, it’s worth a look if only because it presents a new side to the war on terror that’s also undeniably current.

Did you know?
This is the third time Hawke has worked with Niccol. They previously collaborated on “Gattaca” (1997) and the underrated “Lord of War” (2005).

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