“They don’t call it a hellfire for nothing”
There are agenda movies that remain impartial to display a right and wrong interpretation of the ordeal on display through natural causes and there are those manipulated into force-feeding a single viewpoint upon the audience devoid of nuance. Andrew Niccol‘s Good Kill is the latter. The very few instances where he presents the alternative argument to his thesis—that drone strikes are a necessary evil with collateral damage proving the consequence of a “greater good” scenario—either arrive as though the character exclaiming it brainwashed himself into thinking it out of guilt or come from a character written so crassly vile that anything he says sounds supervillainy. I’m not looking for bald-faced rhetoric at the movies; I want complexity so I can decide what’s happening myself.
Niccol gets around this sense of impartiality by focusing his story less on drones and more on Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) spending twelve hours a day in an air-conditioned shipping container attacking high-valued targets and civilians alike seven thousand miles away from a Nevada Air Force base before tucking his kids in bed. Don’t get me wrong—there’s credence to the struggle Egan faces as a human being within the juxtaposition. To force a soldier to decompress and shove away a day’s work extinguishing life in an instant, pretending it didn’t happen while sitting at home eating dinner is unfathomable. At least on deployment you can focus on the job, keep family as your center, and accept your chance of death is equal to the enemy.
Knowing you face no danger changes things and to witness that devolution is powerful. Hawke does a wonderful job portraying this internal battle of conscience because he’s a good soldier and has been for quite some time having flown actual jets over the Middle East before being grounded like so many pilots due to political pressure and fiscal demand. He knows what it’s like to carry the weight of a mission. He flipped that switch for months at a time and then switched it back when home and family called. How can you ask him to do it daily? How can you think it’s okay to put him through hell shouldering enormous guilt and simply unleash him on an innocent wife and kids like it was normal?
This is what Niccol gets right because there’s something fundamentally wrong with that process whether or not we should use drone strikes as often as we do or with the impunity soon witnessed courtesy of CIA spooks. But rather than show a natural unraveling due to the job’s intrinsic circumstances, Niccol ensures his lead is placed within the most extreme of situations. Not only is Egan a former pilot experienced with actual deployment, he’s surrounded by youngsters who haven’t and probably never will. This contrast is monumental and imposes a secondary commentary on millennials engaging in armchair cowboy justice (Jake Abel‘s Zimmer and Dylan Kenin‘s Christie) for fun. Suddenly the hats of terrorist and innocent are switched. Niccol isn’t questioning our role; he’s blatantly vilifying it.
So of course he’s going to paint the CIA as cold-hearted monsters. They probably are, but why make things so black and white? That isn’t proving a point, its manufacturing one. Niccol creates characters in Lt. Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood) and Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) to feel sympathy and pangs of guilt despite continuing to follow orders because that’s the job’s only rule. He places Hawke’s Egan between their righteousness towards the sanctity of life no matter the circumstances and Zimmer/Christie’s righteous superiority in murder so he can crack while reconciling one against the other. Add alcoholism, jealousy towards his wife (January Jones), her fear in him, and yearning to fly again and there’s no suspense in his trajectory. He’s literally been built to fall apart.
In these terms Good Kill provides little substance besides good performances in thinly written roles and authentic drone visuals. The scenes on computer screens showing the Middle East with absolute clarity due to extreme zoom lenses above the terrain are fantastically realized. Watching the system at work is intense because we can’t ignore the fact these people grow up knowing there are eyes in the sky every second of the day. Seeing Egan constantly look up in the backyard of his own cookie-cutter house only makes it more so because he’d never know if someone were looking back at him too. Whether these men and women have AK-47s on their shoulders or not, to live life cognizant that it could all be over instantaneously is insane.
But like most Hollywood fare, time isn’t devoted to both sides of the coin. Men are terrorists in the desert at home and abroad. Women are victims and unnecessary casualties. We bomb prospective enemies and create new ones in the wake. The CIA coldly makes decisions from the comfort of being three chain-of-command cogs away from pulling the trigger themselves and the soldiers forced to kill mercilessly without question are left carrying the burden. There’s definitely a quality movie in these ideas, but this sadly isn’t it. Egan is cracking from the start and everyone around him has a very specific purpose towards that end. Nothing evolves naturally as events simply occur with calculated escalation to push Niccol’s agenda as absolute fact. There’s nothing smart about that.
 Zoe Kravitz (Vera Suarez) and Ethan Hawke (Tom Egan) in Andrew Niccol’s GOOD KILL. Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.
 Ethan Hawke (Tom Egan) and Bruce Greenwood (Jack Johns) in Andrew Niccol’s GOOD KILL. Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.
 Ethan Hawke (Tom Egan) and January Jones (Molly Egan) in Andrew Niccol’s GOOD KILL. Courtesy of Lorey Sebastian. (C) 2014 Clear Skies Nevada LLC. An IFC Films release.