Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as “drones”, have become the source of controversy in global media in the past decade, as the United States expands its military activity in the skies above the Middle East. While popular media harps about the accidental killing of civilians, veteran Air Force pilots reminisce about the “good ol’ days” of flying where being an Air Force pilot actually meant experiencing the G-forces of your aircraft and feeling the adrenaline rush of live combat.
Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill explores these themes through the life of Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), a former F-16 pilot who is reassigned to a remote drone operating facility in the Nevada desert. On the surface, Major Egan seems to have it all — a beautiful wife who wants to have sex all the time, a white picket fence house, and two kids. However, we see how his life is slowly breaking apart because he isn’t able to fly combat sorties; he’s driven into deep alcoholism and marriage, formerly passionate, becomes strained.
When Major Egan’s “pod” is assigned to fly secret drone strikes for the CIA, his psyche suffers further — he starts to question whether he is really doing the “save-the-free-world” work he signed up for when he joined the Air Force. The audience hears the cold voice of an operator at Langley deciding, amidst the hesitation and disgust of Egan’s pod, that “collateral damage” is worth the kill of a high-value target. Through the eyes of the Predator drone’s targeting computer, the audience sees children playing in the streets hit by missiles, and “double taps” that kill civilians who rush to help the injured and recover body parts of innocents.
Good Kill is unlike most war movies in that there is no battlefield action or high-adrenaline fighting. Instead, it is a window into the mind of a pilot whose life is breaking apart under the stresses of a changing and modernizing military. Good Kill makes the audience question their own values too, as pivotal decisions are made about civilian deaths versus mission success — in many ways, Good Kill gives a better window into the mind of a modern combatant and entices more emotional connection from the viewer than most war movies.
Good Kill — United States. Directed by Andrew Niccol. Premiered September 2014 at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, wide release in May 2015. Running time 1hr 44mins. Starring Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Jake Abel, and Bruce Greenwood.