There’s an adage in literature about how long it takes to make great art about a historical event. The idea is it usually takes a fairly long period of time to really understand how that event affected the world and what its repercussion really were. Stephen Crane didn’t write The Red Badge of Courage until about 30 years after the end of the Civil War. In fact, Crane wasn’t born until after the Civil War had ended.
So, maybe that’s why I had mixed feelings about Andrew Niccol’s new film, Good Kill. There’s no question this subject matter is vital and worth exploring, but maybe we haven’t had enough time to process all of its implications.
Good Kill tells the story of Tommy Egan, an Air Force pilot who’s been reassigned to flying un-manned drones. Being a drone pilot should be a plum assignment for a pilot. You’re never in actual combat, and you’re about 7,000 miles from the battlefield. On top of all that, the drone pilots are based near Las Vegas. It’s literally a 40-hour-a-week job, and you can go home to your family at the end of the day. No long tours of duty, no deployments to the Middle East.
But then, there’s all the killing you’re doing and that’s starting to wear on Tommy (Ethan Hawke), whose CO (the invaluable Bruce Davison) is starting to worry his star pilot is about to burn out. Tommy probably kills more people in a week than Chris Kyle did in his entire military career, except thanks to modern cameras and HD television monitors, Tommy may be seeing it in greater closeup and living color. One of the jobs of the drone pilots is to do damage assessment, to fly over the remains of the bomb site and try to count the dead amid all the strewn body parts.
This is all fascinating stuff, clearly worthy of being explored in a feature film. “War is a now a first-person shooter” is a common theme here as we see the Air Force start to put their actual planes in mothballs. As the film progresses, the flight crew starts to take order from the CIA rather than military intelligence, and the CIA standards of engagement are a little bit more fluid. Targets are bombed not on positively identifying the target but by patterns of behavior around the target. Buildings are bombed and then bombed a second time in order to kill the first responders, a tactic Al Quaida has used against coalition troops.
I’m not sure how accurate all of this is, but I assume Niccol has done his research. Good Kill brings up some really vital questions Americans need to be pondering. Are these drone strikes actually making us safer? Or are they actually doing more to antagonize and motivate the enemy? And, what about the pilots? These men and women aren’t in harms way, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer from some kind of cousin to PTSD. The combat scenes are wildly claustrophobic and the exact opposite of what we normally see in war movies like American Sniper. I would recommend the film on the strength of those sequences and the overlaying questions the film winds up raising. This is most decidedly an important movie.
I just wish it were a better one.
Like his previous film, In Time, Niccol seems incapable of allowing the audience to connect their own dots; all the big themes are about as hamfisted as possible. Instead of just showing us the drawbacks and problems with US policy, Airmen are shown debating the pros and cons of drone warfare in the most obvious possible language, high school debate team language. At times the film plays like a bad episode of CNN’s Crossfire, and it’s all fairly obvious which side the film comes down on.
Then, there’s the problem with Tommy’s home life. One of the great cop-outs in American Sniper was its refusal to really show the toll Chris Kyle’s killing was taking on him and his family. At the very end of the movie, we get a scene where Sienna Miller thanks him for “coming back to us,” but we never see what Kyle went through to find his way back to civilization.
On that level I commend Good Kill for trying to dramatize the domestic collateral damage brought on by the war on terror, but it’s rife with every possible war movie cliche imaginable. Make a checklist of self-destructive behaviors, and the film dutifully checks them off. Tommy has a drinking problem, he won’t talk about his problems with his wife, he’s an inattentive father, and he’s prone to violent outbursts. Things aren’t helped by casting January Jones as Tommy’s wife Molly. Her innate coldness really worked to her advantage as Betty Draper on Mad Men, but here she really isn’t capable of balancing Hawke, who’s playing a guy who’s kind of a black to everybody else. And, ultimately, we’ve seen these moments a million times before in other movies, and I can’t believe that every member of the service processes the stress of war in exactly the same way. Good Kill is showing us a side of war we’ve never seen before; it would have been great to have seen a similarly new perspective on how that stress carries itself off the battlefield. That’s surprising coming from the writer of The Truman Show, a film that was as prophetic about reality television as Network was about broadcast news. There’s a strong scene early on when Tommy asks his CO why they continue to wear flight suits since they aren’t really doing any real flying. I think the film wisely leaves that question unanswered, allowing the audience to realize how drone pilots aren’t really following the rules of war, but they are actually pretending to.
Ultimately, I think Good Kill is worth seeing, because of the important story it's telling. Too bad it’s not telling it in a more compelling way.