‘Good kill’ is the oxymoron repeatedly uttered by Ethan Hawke’s drone pilot in this latest film by Andrew Niccol, the writer and director of Gattaca and Lord Of War. As the story progresses it’s a phrase that becomes ever more hollow as we witness a number of strategic drone missile strikes upon supposed US military targets in Afghanistan and the Middle East, many of which are carried out despite a lack of intel and with the knowledge that innocent civilians will be harmed. Hawke’s character Major Tom Egan, a former fighter pilot who now serves his country by carrying out the attacks from a tiny metal portacabin in a military base outside of Las Vegas, is understandably going through a moral crisis. His superiors repeatedly drill home the line that the bombings are in America’s best interests and that his actions will save US lives in the long run, but Egan’s doubts increase by the day, partly fuelled by the presence of a similarly skeptical new colleague (played by Zoë Kravitz). Meanwhile the distance between his tin box in Nevada and the victims of the airstrikes plays on his mind, as does the rapid evolution of this new style of warfare, increasing his personal discomfort with the job at hand. He’d rather be back flying an F-16: still happily killing people at his government’s behest, one presumes, but a little more comfortable in the knowledge that they could strike back if they are lucky enough to have access to the right weaponry.
Initially there seems to be some deliberation about each strike, and a degree of care taken with regard to the targets, though Egan’s frustration increases as this diminishes and his own ability to influence proceedings is reduced. He’s in a position where he must follow orders, even the brutal ones that begin to arrive from the CIA, represented here in time-honoured fashion by an unidentified and authoritative voice speaking down a phone line. The lack of choice is rammed home by Niccol as Egan and his fellow pilots are forced to watch a Taliban soldier repeatedly rape an Afghan woman; they are ordered not to intervene as the soldier is not an important target.
Hawke’s a perfect fit for the stressed out Major, wincing his way through the film with furrowed brow, unable to state his true feelings or disobey orders for fear of reprimand. His wife Molly (January Jones) seems to bear the brunt of Egan’s anguish when he is off duty, and as his marriage collapses the pilot hits the bottle. This thread of the story is less compelling, and quite honestly it’s difficult to care about the disintegration of a single relationship in light of the film’s main subject, while I wonder whether the diversion from the topic of drone warfare is even necessary; there aren’t many films about that, after all, while there’s a seemingly-endless stream about men and their problematic marriages. It’s also a shame that the characters around Egan share little of his confliction: they’re either completely unquestioning about military or CIA orders or so obviously against the concept it’s hard to believe they’d be given the job of blowing people up from afar in the first place. Still, I won’t argue about the timeliness of Niccol’s examination of this relatively new technology, which has seemingly been accepted in real lifev without much in the way of public outrage. Despite some misfiring elements it’s a compelling drama, and one that gets to grips with the moral dilemmna surrounding drone warfare without presenting any easy answers; however as a marital drama this is disappointingly by the book.
Directed by: Andrew Niccol.
Written by: Andrew Niccol.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Jake Abel, Bruce Greenwood.
Cinematography: Amir Mokri.
Editing: Zach Staenberg.
Music: Christophe Beck.
Running Time: 102 minutes.