Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Good Kill is one of the first films to tackle the heated social issue of drone strikes, and it treats the subject with strong morality and biting criticism. The film stars Ethan Hawke as an embattled military pilot that has been subjected to indirectly flying drones over the Middle East in an air-conditioned office, a workplace with which he is both uncomfortable and unsettled. This dilemma feels particular to a military man, but the message behind his work is clear: drone strikes are morally unsound and often kill innocent lives. Even if an attack against terrorists saves many citizens, are the innocent ones lost considered inconsequential and treated as war casualties? It’s a sad realization within Andrew Niccol’s film, which evolves from a stark modern commentary into a melodramatic familial drama in its second half. That does not detract from the film’s strengths, though, nor its overarching message regarding doing the right thing when a war effort seems to be aimed at the wrong ideals. It’s a morally challenging and decidedly modern film.
The story focuses on Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), a family man married to a former dancer, Molly (January Jones). He used to work as a pilot for over a decade in the United States military, but was recently transferred to work as a drone pilot under the command of Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood). Johns is a man marked by his desire to inform soldiers that flying a drone carries as much weight and responsibility as being a normal pilot, but it seems to be a message that goes over every soldier’s head. Men often talk about how flying a drone feels like a video game and that civilian casualties are a necessary evil of the job, but soldiers like Thomas and Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) have a moral compass that steers them away from traditional gung-ho beliefs. As Thomas’ family life begins to crumble as his professional life grows increasingly strained and unethical, he descends into alcoholism and struggles with himself as a whole. He hates the man he has become, and the means to which the government must go to supposedly preserve freedom.
Andrew Niccol’s script is astute and keenly relevant. It holds a bite that rings true and stands as one of the most important political films of the past decade, at least in terms of the overarching message in its first half. The second half, though, while not awful, proves to be a misfire that grinds the film to a momentous halt. The familial drama that emerges, most notably the shrill nature of January Jones’s character, makes for an unforgivingly sluggish third act. The film undervalues its supporting female characters until it allows Vera, playing well by Kravitz, to emerge as a potential third party in the relationship who stands as her own strong individual. Niccol’s films are decidedly hit-and-miss when they come to their effectiveness; I was a fan of his most recent In Time, not necessarily as a remarkable piece of filmmaking but as a strong example of world-building and atmosphere. Here, he grounds his story in reality from the get-go, making an emphatic statement about the ever-growing military-industrial complex in the United States. He’s sometimes too on-the-nose, but when he aims for subtlety, Good Kill excels as a morally divisive fable.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)