In the past few years, Hollywood, which has long held a mirror to society’s myriad blemishes, began to focus its lens on the United States’ controversial drone program—a battalion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) issuing targeted missile attacks largely in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Northwest Pakistan. A drone targeting suspected terrorist Abu Nazir killed his family, setting into motion the events of Showtime’s Homeland. The Fox miniseries 24: Live Another Day saw a massive drone wreak havoc on London. The superhero blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past involved Jennifer Lawrence and Co. going back in time to stop a campaign to unleash mutant-targeting drones, dubbed Sentinels. And another, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, centered on the nefarious organization Hydra’s attempt to launch a trio of drone-dispatching megaships over the country for our own protection.
But never has the drone program, first implemented by then-President George W. Bush and accelerated under President Barack Obama, been critiqued with the level of precision and humanity as it does in Good Kill, which made its world premiere at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.
The film, which bears the disclaimer “based on actual events,” is set in 2010 during the greatest string of targeting killing in our nation’s history. That year, the U.S. carried out approximately 122 drone strikes, according to data supplied by the New America Foundation—killing 849 people, including 788 militants, 16 civilians, and 45 unidentified victims. By comparison, in the six previous years of the drone program’s existence, 100 strikes were issued.
Good Kill opens in an air-conditioned trailer on the outskirts of Vegas. Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is monitoring the Afghan desert through his drone’s viewfinder. The target is acquired, and the strike order is given. Egan pulls the trigger. Within 10 seconds, his target vanishes in a muted cloud of smoke and rubble 7,000 miles away. “Splash… Good Kill,” he says, emotionless. Every “Good Kill,” or successfully dispatched militant, costs $68,000 in taxpayer dollars. Following the strike, as well as a damage assessment, Egan is relieved from his shift. He gets in his car, drives past Vegas—the epitome of the Western world run amok—and stops off at a convenience store to buy some beer. When the clerk asks him how his day’s going, he replies, “I blew away six Taliban in Pakistan today. Now, I’m going home to barbecue.”
We soon learn that Egan is a grounded pilot who served six tours flying F-16’s in Iraq. He wants to get back in they sky, where the sense of danger and consequence is palpable. “I feel like a coward,” he later confesses. His stunning wife, Molly (January Jones), is thankful their children’s father is home—even if he’s even more distant than he was in between tours. Director Andrew Niccol and cinematographer Amir Mokri cleverly juxtapose Egan’s idyllic suburban existence with the huts and compounds of his would-be targets through corresponding overhead shots.
Back at the base, Egan and his fellow drone operators are given a spirited pep talk by their commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood).
“This ain’t fuckin’ Playstation—even though the program was modeled on X-Box,” he says, “and half of you were recognized in malls because you are fuckin’ gamers.”
Later, Lt. Johns defends the drone program by making mention of the public’s anger over videos of jihadists “denouncing America” and then “liberating a head from its shoulders.” The moment will send chills up the spines of many Americans, considering the movie’s premiere comes the same week that the Islamic terrorist organization ISIS executed a second American prisoner in retaliation—they claim—for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, publicly denouncing President Obama in the process.After Major Egan is wracked with guilt for accidentally killing two children in a targeted attack—the drones hover 10,000 feet above their targets, and anything can enter the frame within the 10 to 12 seconds between trigger-pull and “splash”—Lt. Johns pulls him aside and, as is his wont, gives his distraught “soldier” a pep talk.“They knew there were kids on those 767s they flew into the Twin Towers,” he says, matter of factly. “They had to walk past them to get into the cockpits.”The shit really hits the fan, however, when orders come in from Langley that the CIA, which Lt. Johns has nicknamed “Christians In Action,” will be directly issuing target orders in a campaign they’ve dubbed “Special Operations”—based on the real-life Special Activities Division. A disembodied voice (Peter Coyote) tells the drone operators that they’ll be engaging in what they call a “Signature Strike—a hit not based on a suspicion of guilt, but a pattern of behavior,” adding, “This preemptive self-defense is approved and ordered by the administration.” Due to this new edict, the collateral damage increases. Major Egan and crew are no longer exacting, to quote President Obama, a “targeted, focused effort” meant to minimize civilian casualties, but are taking out entire compounds based on whether, say, a suspected terrorist is usually at said compound around 9 a.m. Yes, they identify the target before firing, but they’re also blissfully unaware of who else is inside. Furthermore, the CIA begins issuing “follow-ups”—where the drone operators will hit the same target twice, taking out first responders—since they claim these men are also, probably, Taliban. (This practice, which is a real thing, is more commonly referred to as a “double-tap.”)
Soon, Egan begins to unravel—haunted by the high body counts, the civilian casualties, and the bizarre, detached nature of it all. His home life becomes a mess. He begins drinking heavily, neglecting his family, and accusing his wife of having an affair. Things really come to a head when Egan tearfully recounts to Molly of having to wipe out a funeral where the brother of a suspected Taliban leader was allegedly in attendance (also, a real thing).
Whereas most anti-drone appraisals from the Hollywood hit factory are chock-full of explosions and mayhem, Niccol has managed to capture the inhumanity of the drone program in silence. There is no loud boom, or even a sound—just a man handling a joystick observing a blurry screen, pressing a trigger, and taking in a silent explosion. The cold-heartedness of the practice is amplified by Hawke’s low-key, poignant performance. He may look Top Gun, with his flight suit and aviator shades, but beneath the façade lays a man torn to pieces. The lines on Hawke’s face complement his haunted character to staggering effect, conveying the job’s heavy toll. Jones, it should be said, is also aces as the unfulfilled housewife (a role she plays very convincingly on Mad Men).
Niccol’s screenplay can be a bit heavy-handed at times, including Lt. Johns’ knack for military consonance, e.g. “fly and fry,” and a romantic subplot involving a new drone pilot, played by Zoe Kravitz, that stretches the bounds of credibility, but the filmmaker is adept at covering these themes before, with the movie recalling Hawke’s eager pilot in their best collaboration, Gattaca, the commentary on weaponization in their Lord of War, or the notion of controlling someone’s fate remotely, as in his screenplay for The Truman Show. With Good Kill, Niccol and Hawke have crafted an essential, timely drama on a controversial program that’s reportedly claimed the lives of between 1,965 and 3,295 people (including 261 to 305 civilians) since 2004.