Good Kill: “Was that a war crime, sir?”

May 26, 2015

Good Kill
Cast: Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kravitz, Jake Abel
Director: Andrew Niccol
Rating: R, for violent content including a rape, language and some sexuality
Running time: 103 minutes


We have always imagined a morality of warfare, a code of honor among combatants that ennobles butchery. As naive as it might have been to imagine war as anything other than Sherman’s Hell, there is something romantic and true in the idea of the soldier as champion and surrogate, risking sacrifice to secure the fates and fortunes of his countrymen.

Ethan Hawke and January Jones in Good Kill.

Ethan Hawke and January Jones in Good Kill.

In this context, a “good kill” might be defined as the necessary elimination of an enemy combatant who knew exactly what he was getting into when he took up arms against one’s nation. It implies a certain cleanliness, the absence of personal malice and a righteous motive on the part of the killer.

But technology complicates the notion — it is more and more possible to kill from a position of safety. Snipers can set up half a mile away from their intended targets; bombs and missiles rain from the skies. War is more and more prosecuted by men and women half a world away from the killing and breaking. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill imagines how that must feel.

Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) is an Air Force pilot who used to fly F-16 fighter jets. Judging from his vintage muscle car, taciturn manner and functioning alcoholism, he’s an heir to Chuck Yeager, a right stuff flyboy addicted to risk. After six tours of combat duty, he’s been “rewarded” with a stateside job. Every day he walks into a small trailer in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas to spend a shift surveilling and sometimes killing people on the other side of the world.

The good news is he gets to go home every night to a tidy suburb to his wife and family and sleep in his own bed. He can cook out on the weekends, drink a few beers and watch a ballgame. He can live pretty much like any other comfortably fixed American head of household. But, of course, it’s not enough.

Maybe it’s because his wife, Molly, is played by January Jones, but it struck me that there’s something of Don Draper in Tom Egan. He is a man who is what he does, and the nature of what he does has changed. The lures of economic tranquility and domestic comfort are insufficient to feed his masculine appetites — and the idea of conducting a video game war in which he literally has no skin bothers him in a way I’m not sure he’s able to articulate. Tom Egan does not seem like a particularly complicated man given to mulling moral conundrums, but he doesn’t feel right about things. He’s a pilot who has been grounded. He wonders why he still reports to work in a flight suit.

But because he is a soldier, he does what he is ordered to do. And most of the time, it makes sense. He puts on his headphones and stares at a screen, working with a tight, small team under the direction of Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), a no-nonsense C.O. who understands that most of the drone pilots he oversees “were recruited in malls precisely because [they were] a bunch of gamers.”

Egan, he knows, is different — a real pilot who brings an extra intangible to his drone missions. The rest of them have never put themselves in jeopardy, and they talk in a techno jargon that obscures the real-world consequences of their actions. Vera (Zoe Kravitz), the only woman in the unit, shares Egan’s seriousness and empathy for targets. One of the movie’s grace notes is the discreet flirtation she conducts with Egan on their lunch breaks, and even in the midst of missions.

Vera is the team’s conscience — empathetically counseling restraint and asking, “Was that a war crime, sir?” after a particularly difficult decision — while Zimmer (Jake Abel) is the bro-hard PM techie who is quick to remind everyone that most of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were American civilians. “Fly and fry,” is Zimmer’s war cry. Egan sits between these poles, navigating his drone through an increasingly complex moral landscape.

Things turn much darker when the team is pressed into service by the CIA (“Christians in Action,” the Air Force people call them), who operate in territories much grayer than the military. Their mandate is broader and their rules are looser — they worry less about collateral damage and whether or not they’ve positively identified their targets before striking. Worse, they’re not even in the room with the team — the point of contact is Peter Coyote’s disembodied voice on a speakerphone.

Niccol is a filmmaker given to big ideas and science fiction sweep, whose successes (Gattaca and The Truman Show) have been as audacious as his failures (the incomprehensible In Time). Here he’s working at a more intimate level, and though the drone missions might feel futuristic, the film is set in 2010 and the capabilities demonstrated are very real. Good Kill is more a psychological drama than a war movie, and its limited scale serves the film well. We get the sense of Egan as a man unable to acclimate himself to a supposedly normal life — we suspect everyone liked it better when he was flying overseas, when his moments with his family were all the more precious for being less routine.

Egan, like Chris Kyle in American Sniper, has pretty much been ruined for polite society by the things he sees and does, but unlike Kyle he can’t seek the refuge of the war zone. He steps out of his trailer and is back in a world that’s indifferent (if not hostile) to his: A liquor store clerk asks Egan a variation of the same question he’s asked himself — is the jet jockey uniform he rocks just a kind of costume he puts on to attract women?

Good Kill belongs to a class I’d describe as plausible horror movies. Niccol’s depiction of Egan’s day-to-day existence may or may not be accurate, but it credibly imagines the anxieties inherent in decent people waging a faceless campaign against an “enemy” who cannot shoot back. Honor might seem a fanciful notion to those of us who never see combat — but it is the soldier’s oxygen.

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