Good Kill is an angry film that is somewhat grounded by a strong lead performance from Ethan Hawke. Hawke was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Boyhood and … well, he probably won’t be nominated for anything for Good Kill. The film’s coming out too early in the year and it’s not really a crowd-pleasing Oscar movie. It’s too angry and polemical but still, Ethan Hawke gives an excellent performance.
Hawke plays Thomas Egan, an air force pilot who, after serving 6 tours in Afghanistan, is reassigned to pilot drones from a base in Las Vegas. For 12 hours a day, Egan sits in a cramped room where he and three other pilots spend their time staring at video monitors and observing people going about their lives on the other side of the world. Occasionally, a phone rings and they are given orders by a never seen CIA supervisor. All Egan has to do is push a button and, in just ten seconds, he can blow up a stranger 7,000 miles away.
Of course, it’s not just the targets who get blown up. Anyone unlucky enough to be standing nearby ends up getting blown up as well, which is something that Egan’s commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood) insists is a regretful but acceptable consequence of fighting the War of Terror. Except, of course, nobody’s quite sure that they’re actually blowing up terrorists. Instead, often times, it’s a matter of guesswork. People are blown up because they could be terrorists, not because they definitely are.
While most of the members of Egan’s unit are unconcerned about the ethics or the legalities of drone warfare, Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) is an exception. She worries that they’re just creating more terrorists. (And yet, interestingly enough, she still follows orders whenever she’s told to blow someone up.) Egan is troubled by the implications of what he’s doing but, for the most part, he keeps his feelings to himself.
From the beginning, the tightly wound Egan struggles with the pressure of being a drone pilot. After spending half of the day killing strangers who may or may not be terrorists, Egan finds it difficult to spend the rest of the day with his wife (January Jones) and his children. Slowly but surely, cracks start to appear on Egan’s facade. He starts drinking. He drives recklessly. He yells at his family. He grows paranoid about the neighbors. When a cop asks him how the War on Terror is going, Egan smirks and replies that it’s going as well as the War on Drugs…
Even though I agreed, for the most part, with everything that the film had to say, I still found it to be incredibly heavy-handed. There is something to be said for subtlety and Good Kill is definitely not a subtle movie. Rabidly anti-military audiences will enjoy having their own prejudices confirmed but, with everyone other than Egan and Vera being portrayed as being bloodthirsty and ignorant, you can be sure that this film won’t change any minds. Politically, this a political film that’s not going to make a bit of difference.
At the same time, there is an interesting subtext running through the film. During the 12 hours that Egan spends in that room, he essentially ceases to be a human being and becomes an extension of that drone. Both literally and figuratively, he becomes a part of the war machine. Just imagine if a director like David Cronenberg had handled this material. Director Anrew Niccol briefly touches on the Cronenbergian aspects of the story but, in the end, he gets too bogged down in all of the speeches.
The problem with political films like Good Kill is that they often feel very artificial and that’s why you’re thankful for Ethan Hawke’s performance. Hawke gives a performance of such raw power that he cuts through all of the polemical bullshit. The film is nearly smothered under the director’s heavy hand but Hawke breathes it back to life. Hawke’s performance brings much needed authenticity to Good Kill and, as a result, he elevates the entire film.