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April 8, 2015
Despite being a hot topic at the center of many polemic discussions involving politicians and the public opinion or maybe exactly because of that reason, the drone war hasn’t been portrayed that often either on the small or the big screen. This remote-controlled way the US has been (mostly) fighting the war on terror in the Middle East has spurred the inevitable diatribe between those who think it’s a cowardly way the most powerful nation in the world recklessly plays videogames with innocent human lives and those who support the way it reduces the risk of endangering the lives of many soldiers in action.
I’m not here to pontificate on any position (if anything I’m a pacifist) and the same overall can be said of writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord Of War) whose new film, Good Kill, stars Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke as a drone pilot who “goes to war” for twelve hours a day in a drone base in the middle of the Nevada desert and then goes back home to his wife and kids in the suburban side of Vegas. What sounds like a chills-inducing routine is portrayed objectively, especially given how the film is all set on US soil and focuses solely on the American perspective of the drone war but that’s exactly the point.
Niccol has created a claustrophobic character study that analyzes the life of a man struggling to cope with what he does for a living as he basically gets affected by an alternative form of PTSD. The film deals in particular with the CIA intervention in the drone program circa 2010 when they were basically preoccupied mainly with eliminating their targets, no matter if at the expense of innocent women and children. It is disturbing indeed to watch these soldiers helplessly having to obey such deathly orders with the claim of wrong place at the wrong time when it comes to the collateral damage. But whilst some of these drone pilots like arrogant Zimmer (Jake Abel) choose to not let the grim “side effects” of their job get to their psyche, Tom Egan (Hawke), a former fighter pilot who misses actual flying, begins to questions the ethics of what he does on a daily basis.
One of the hardest scenes to watch is when Egan and the rest of his team can’t help but just having to powerlessly watch a Taliban systematically assault and rape a woman who lives in a village. It makes the blood in your veins boil, just as much as Egan’s blood does and Hawke is masterful at portraying his character’s mounting uneasiness and pent up frustration turning into rage. He’s like a pressure cooker ready to explode and his family life soon begins to add to that pressure rather than alleviate it. Egan’s lonely and bored wife in fact (January Jones who practically plays a slight variation on her Mad Men’s character) becomes impatient with her husband’s emotional and physical disconnection, and his silences getting on her nerves: their thin balance is bound to break down.
That’s where the film loses its focus a bit as the story introduces a new recruit of Egan’s team, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) who’s not just smoking hot but also clearly not happy with the program’s new management and their distorted moral compass in running the operation. This obviously creates a connection between her and Egan who, having troubles at home, isn’t totally immune to the woman’s charm. Although bogged down by this unnecessary romantic subplot, the story at least keeps the hormones reined in and albeit distracting us from the main focus, it avoids falling into soap territory.
With Good Kill, Andrew Niccol puts his love for sci-fi on hold and returns to Lord of War territory though this is a straight up drama that plays out in the realm of TV series Homeland (which coincidentally explored the same topic this season) rather than satire or dark comedy since that wouldn’t have served the scope of portraying this horrifying reality.
The result is an extremely poignant look at the shape the war on terror has taken nowadays, reflecting on moral dilemmas and how they affect us personally and publicly thanks to a tremendous Ethan Hawke who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders with believable and affecting gravitas throughout the running time. The film’s title refers to the way the miltary label a successful and clean operation. By the time credits roll those two words are heavy to digest. Can any kill be deemed good?
Good Kill is released in UK cinemas on April 10th
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor