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Andrew Niccol has a lot to say. The writer-director specializes in dramas awash with social commentary; he’s previously explored such social ills as the arms industry (Lord of War), income inequality (In Time), and the dehumanizing effects of corporate media (The Truman Show). With Good Kill, Niccol takes aim at drone warfare, a subject that has found its way into several recent blockbusters without ever receiving a proper cinematic exploration.
Good Kill isn’t that. While Niccol has previously excelled at blending the political and the personal, his latest effort is a failed polemic that too often substitutes talking points for dialogue and policy for actual drama.
The film’s brilliant central performance from Ethan Hawke, however, almost makes it work. As Thomas Egan, a decorated Air Force pilot assigned to operate a drone from a tiny command center in Las Vegas, Hawke blends archetypes—the brainless jock and the tortured poet—to create a character that embodies the American contradiction. After six tours of duty in the Middle East, Egan is now locked into a colorless suburban existence with his wife (January Jones) and two kids. He misses the action and, when we first meet him, is scheming to get reassigned to the field. Slowly, his new vantage point leads to a shift in perspective. Far from the whizzing bullets, he begins to question his orders and eventually his role in the War on Terror.
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The film does well when it confronts us with the same ethical dilemmas that creep into the mind of its protagonist. Niccol makes at least one terrific choice: When Egan is working, the director aligns us with his perspective and fills the screen with the same digital images of bombs exploding and civilians dying that he sees. This puts the audience in a space to empathize and ask questions. Unfortunately, Niccol doesn’t trust us to answer them correctly, so he devotes far too much time to characters’ prosaic arguments over the ethics of drone warfare. As the new recruit who changes Egan’s mind, the talented Zoë Kravitz has the unfortunate task of trying to turn Niccol’s political perspective into believable dialogue. Meanwhile, a couple of meathead airmen espouse the pro-drone argument, then basically disappear from the film after making their point.
If Good Kill is nothing but a political diatribe when Egan is on the job, it’s somehow worse when he’s at home. He neglects his family, drinks to forget his traumas, and, in time, turns violent. Haven’t we see this character arc before in—oh, I don’t know—every other movie about veterans ever made? At its core, Good Kill’s depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder is no different than that of The Deer Hunter, American Sniper, or any recent story about veterans returning from war.
Still, putting old clichés in a new context can sometimes be an efficient way to comment on the present. Maybe that’s what Niccol was going for? Off screen, military leaders sell the idea of drone warfare to the public by highlighting the benefits of keeping our soldiers away from the violence, but Good Kill argues that violence will find a way to creep into their lives, no matter how physically removed from the action they are. It’s a complex and important political point, but it never quite lands. Niccol is undone by the same mistakes he criticizes in the military: He forgets his characters’ humanity and only sees them as numbers in a calculation for success.
Good Kill opens May 22 at ArcLight Bethesda.