MOVIE REVIEW: Good Kill
"GOOD KILL"-- 4 STARS
In a world where we marvel at the technological innovation of personal electronics like computers, tablets, and smartphones that make their previous models obsolete in a yearly (or shorter) basis, we sometimes forget the same thing has been going in in military technology in the same period of time. For example, World War I was now over 100 years ago when the first large scale efforts were used to include machine guns, airplanes, and motorized vehicles on the battlefield. Movies can be a easy visual example for that distinct growth. Watch "All Quiet on the Western Front" and then watch "Zero Dark Thirty." My how the world has changed.
What doesn't change in the theater of war or that which is portrayed in war films are the human themes. Old technology or new technology, the dramas, successes, fears, and results of victories and failures still apply, only the scope and scale has changed. "Good Kill," the new film written and directed by Andrew Niccol, typifies that signature human impact of war. Reunited with his "Gattaca" muse Ethan Hawke, Niccol delivers a very timely and provocative slow boiler with a great deal to say about the current modern state of warfare.
"Good Kill" is inspired by a true story and takes place within the world of the United States's controversial use of drone warfare. Hawke is Major Thomas Egan, a calculating veteran pilot who flew six tours of duty in Iraq as an F-16 pilot during the War on Terror after 9/11. Now, in the 2010, through age and downsizing, he's been reduced to three straight tours as a drone pilot flying UAVs. He fights his war now in an air-conditioned box in Nevada and not at the stick of a supersonic jet on the front lines. On the outside, Tom still looks the part of a post-"Top Gun" alpha male with the muscle car and the remnants of the hot shot fairy tale. That might be his look, but he has become a grim man of very few words.
Even though Tom gets to serve his country and go home every night to his wife Molly (January Jones) and children, his disillusionment has grown a great deal. He is commonly sullen, distant, and intoxicated away from the base. Tom's piloting instincts serve him well surrounded by a bunch of brash rookie soldiers who think what they're doing is PlayStation. He gets that it's still flesh and not pixels, even if it feels like a first-person shooter. Tom know he's still a killer, but doesn't feel like a pilot anymore and even less of an honorable soldier. He feels like a coward shooting people in the back from his cushy joystick and monitor. His commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Jack Johns, played by Bruce Greenwood, sees that fracturing mentality from Tom but still must be the pusher and pep talker to keep this important war effort moving.
Those internal stresses and challenges become worse when Jack and Tom's team, including his new partner Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), are selected by the CIA to exclusively run their drone operations. Normally backed by firm objectives and established strategic intelligence, these new missions, targets, and "signature strikes" are decidedly more clandestine and less morally reasonable than what Tom and the team are used to conducting. As if the job already wasn't troubling him enough, this accelerates the deterioration of his fragile psyche and normal capacity for compartmentalization.
The casting is slyly ingenious. The normally energetic Ethan Hawke plays against type and does a fine job with a razor sharp role where he humanizes a difficult gray area of morals most of us don't even want to think about. The always reliable Bruce Greenwood, who's played all sorts of leaders over the years, can bust balls, kill dissension, and pep talk anyone with the best of them, sternly pulsates the seriousness involved without excessively chewing scenery. The youth and emerging toughness of Zoe Kravitz is a good foil for Hawke's lead. Even January Jones gets some moments where her part extends beyond the typical pining military wife at home.
The absolute strength of this film is the power of its messages. Emboldened by a strong moral and human commentary on this modern advancement of warfare, "Good Kill" creates the setting where the big questions no one wants to ask get said out loud. Audacious and chilling with its level of warped voyeurism and violent repercussions, Niccol's film will challenge your own acceptance or understanding of this new military tactic. There's no doubt the use of drones mathematically saves lives and boots on the ground, but it does so at a different steep cost that this film meticulously examines to a brilliant level. "Good Kill" is equal as a hard pill to swallow as "Zero Dark Thirty" was two-and-a-half years ago. Altogether, the credit goes to Andrew Niccol who, across "Gattaca," "Lord or War," and "The Truman Show," has always made films with important points of view that are fascinating to absorb.
Remember, there is an unwritten Hollywood rule or tendency that every war film is really an anti-war film in disguise. Any glorification is present to be the balancing opposite to the other side of the pendulum towards the losses and horrors of war. That is readily apparent here in "Good Kill" all the way up to its ending. The film had to end and that is where it feels like Hollywood took over with a small, cheapened, and egoistic finish that grants a certain level of selfish victory instead of deserved comeuppance after all of that strong commentary. It preaches principle in a movie that questioned principle the whole time. That's the one flaw keeping this film from a perfect five star review and being the best film this website has reviewed so far this year.
LESSON #1: A DIFFERENT KIND OF POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER-- This topic last graced this website in the review for "American Sniper." Clint Eastwood's film featured a man who had trouble coming to grips with the decisions he made, the lives he took, and being able to come home to his family. "Good Kill" matches that difficult condition with no room for a bleeding heart weakness. It just comes from a different form of killing and a guy who gets to go home every night. Each time Tom presses that button instead of a trigger, the consequences weigh heavily on him, but within that weaker level of self worth he feels as a drone operator instead of a pilot where there is less understanding and respect. He knows to compartmentalize and tell himself he's doing the right thing, working on the right side of the fight, and saving lives, but he's reaching his limits and it's eating him up.
LESSON #2: THE FUTURE OF WARFARE IS NOW-- The shift from pilots and soldiers to drones, UAVs, and other automatic vehicles, weapons, and tools is indeed becoming the future theater of warfare. Enemies and armies stay small and off the grid and this technology can find them. We're not going back to lines of Bluecoats versus Redcoats in honorable lines of battlefield chess and sacrifice. The landscape has changed and so have the threats. Technology such as this takes husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons off of the front lines and out of dangerous situations. Such drone warfare is impersonal, but it saves lives and costs less, two measures that keep politicians elected and in favorable regard. This is merely the beginning.
LESSON #3: THE JUSTIFICATION OR QUESTIONING OF DIFFERENT METHODS OF WAR-- The 800 pound gorilla in the room for "Good Kill" is the justification or questioning of the use of drone warfare. The time period of the film, a short five years ago, shows the technology in its emerging infancy. It is clearly helpful, a distinct advantage over the enemy, and it gains results and low human costs. The question becomes drone warfare's lethal power, prevalence, and objective or non-objective use by whom giving the orders and what are the missions and targets. "Good Kill" is a strong platform for this timely and barb-filled discussion.