“Good Kill” is a very modern war movie, which means that it’s about a guy in a room in the American Southwest who pushes a button and kills a group of people somewhere in Central Asia. Over and over again. You and I have read about drone warfare a lot and hopefully have given it some thought, anguished or otherwise, but writer-director Andrew Niccol wants you to feel in your bones what it is to watch live footage of men and women on the other side of the planet and obliterate them with a twitch of a joystick.
No, it doesn’t feel very good, especially when you factor in the collateral damage: noncombatants blown to pieces, further injury to America’s international standing, the slow erosion of the soul in those pushing the buttons. “Good Kill” is by necessity a grim piece of work, one that fields a powerful and unexpectedly terse performance from Ethan Hawke while stumbling over plot developments that seem increasingly forced. Niccol can be forgiven his outrage even as it leads him to create drama out of agenda instead of the other way around.
Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) is already in crisis when we meet him. An Air Force pilot coming off six tours in country and on his third in a military base near Las Vegas, he’s slowly going crazy piloting drones over Afghanistan under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood). The problem is that he’s exceptionally good at what he does, stalking enemy insurgents from his eyes in the sky and dispatching them with precisely aimed missiles. Tommy doesn’t go for Johns’s cynicism or the gung-ho rationalizations of fellow pilot Zimmer (Jake Abel), or the tight-lipped horror of new recruit Suarez (Zoe Kravitz). He just makes his kills, goes home, and tells his family nothing. It’s eating him alive.
As a filmmaker, Niccol has a gift for visualizing uncomfortable futures (“Gattaca,” “In Time”) and presents (“Lord of War”) while overthinking his stories until the air gets pressed out of them. The screws tightening on the hero are relentless: an increasingly unsympathetic wife (January Jones, of “Mad Men”) who may be stepping out on him, pressures from the brass, the day-in-day-out grind of his deadly surveillance. If Tommy’s a god, he’s an impotent one: In a particularly harrowing scene, he and Suarez look down from the skies as an Afghani man beats and rapes his wife in a courtyard. A bad guy, but not one of the ones we’re allowed to kill. Meanwhile, the guilt of those the hero does blow up becomes increasingly murky.
It’s not all a horror show. At one point, Tommy is called in to pilot his drone over an exhausted squadron of US soldiers hoping to rest in the field. “I did something good tonight,” he tells his wife in disbelief. Yet the weirdness of his life takes a toll. When a Vegas convenience store clerk casually asks the hero how his day went, his reply — “I blew away six Taliban in Pakistan” — opens up the sheer surrealism of modern warfare.
At a certain point, Johns’s crew starts taking its orders directly from a CIA black-ops unit, with Langley patched in by conference call. The chain of command thus grows even more abstract, a disembodied voice (actor Peter Coyote) telling the drone operator who does and doesn’t deserve to die. Second strikes are called in, just to take care of rescuers or mourners. It’s unclear whether these are among the “true events” “Good Kill” claims to be based upon, but it doesn’t seem like Niccol’s dramatic license is lagging too far behind reported fact.
Still, the director’s heavy hand can be felt in an unnecessary side romance between Tommy and Suarez, in the monologues that stake out various positions on the film’s ethical compass, in overhead shots that draw parallels between the deserts of Afghanistan and Nevada. This manufactured tension builds to an act of rebellion that supposedly evens the dramatic stakes and leads the hero back toward morality. It only muddies the water further. “Good Kill” wants to use the movies as a Trojan horse to confront us with our international sins. It’s a worthy effort, even if it’s not a very well-built horse.