Over the past fifteen years, missile-carrying drones have become key weapons of the CIA and the U.S. ‘war on terror’. They are frequently used to search for and kill specific ‘targets’ (i.e. suspected terrorist leaders). Just before watching the fourth season of Homeland, in which an ill-advised drone strike is central to the plot, I finally had a chance to watch Andrew Niccol’s latest film, Good Kill. It was released in May but never made it to Winnipeg (as far as I heard) and so I knew nothing about it until someone I trust (Gareth?) recommended it to me. Good Kill is entirely about the horrific use of drones by the CIA and the U.S. military.
Andrew Niccol consistently makes flawed films with something important to say. Since I am quick to forgive many of a film’s flaws if I think its heart is in the right place, I generally give Niccol’s films much better reviews than the average critic. His films S1mOne, In Time and The Host were generally panned by the critics, but I enjoyed all of them, appreciating them for what they were trying to say. And Gattaca and Lord of War were excellent films in spite of their flaws. And let’s not forget that Niccol wrote The Truman Show, one of my all-time favourites.
Good Kill follows the pattern precisely, though I think it’s one of Niccol’s best. It is very well-made, with solid acting (especially Ethan Hawke as the film’s protagonist), gorgeous cinematography and a good score. The typically intelligent screenplay is often masterful, but this is where the flaws are usually the most evident. Niccol has important things to say and finds entertaining ways to say them, but he can’t always figure out how to both share those important thoughts and tell the human stories he wants to tell (The Truman Show and Gattaca are exceptions). Sometimes this is due to plausibility problems. In the case of Good Kill, the two pieces of the well-developed story just don’t come together in a fully satisfying way.
Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, a former fighter pilot who's has become one of the very best at flying a drone from his base in Nevada, thousands of miles away from the targets he is taking out. When he hits a target cleanly, he reports a ‘good kill’ and the mission is complete. Then he drives to his suburban home in Las Vegas ("I blew away six Taliban and now I am going home to barbecue,”), showing just how out of synch drone warfare is with any sense of being in a war or killing the enemy. Egan’s wife (played by January Jones) isn’t sure Egan is really there at all (and neither is he; he wants to return to the Middle East and fly the plane himself). Egan is also struggling with the sudden involvement of the CIA, forcing him to participate in drone strikes that he finds morally questionable.
The best lines of Good Kill belong to Egan’s CO, Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood). He says things like “Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. It’s just war.” While Johns does as he’s told, he conveys the feeling that he hates drone warfare even more than Egan.
Good Kill is what American Sniper could and should have been, the story of a soldier whose work of killing changes his life and exposes the insanity and immorality of the current war on terror. Good Kill also exposes the scary way drones can spy on anyone and everyone at any time. This quiet, thoughtful and very scary war film gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.
Homeland, Season 4
I promised to keep you updated on Homeland’s progress, especially after season three seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. Well, while the quality of the series as a whole has been on a gradual decline since season one, season four did a good job of exposing the horrific insanity of drone warfare (like Good Kill) and (unlike American Sniper) humanizing the people on all sides (even giving the official ‘baddie’ some very thought-provoking lines about why he does what he does, while unfortunately also trying to get viewers to hate him). The progress of Homeland, from a moral point of view, remains ambiguous, so I’ll keep reporting, but for now I’ll also keep watching.