Drones are a hot topic for debate, and writer/director Andrew Niccol clearly has an opinion on the issue. Rather than create an emotionally compelling documentary, though, Niccol has chosen to stick with narrative fiction to examine the issue. The result is Good Kill, a well-intentioned film that’s heavier on the issue than any sort of plot.
Ethan Hawke stars as Air Force Major Thomas Egan, who has traded in his time on extended tours overseas for a position where he operates a bomber in a bunker in the Nevada desert, then goes home to the suburban house he’s set up with wife Molly (January Jones). The problem for Egan is that he misses the sensation that comes with actually flying. What’s more, most days his commanding officer, Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) isn’t the one giving orders; instead, an unnamed government official (voiced by Peter Coyote) gives them instructions from CIA headquarters in Langley, and those acts could be considered war crimes. Unable to ease his conscience, Egan begins to drink heavily and withdraw from Molly.
To his credit, Niccol uses parts of the film to give voice to opposing arguments. Johns clearly despises drone warfare, but argues that it’s better for the military to use it than other parties. It’s not Niccol’s point of view, but it gives voice to a different viewpoint without outright condemning it. That condemnation is aimed more at the shadowy figure voiced by Coyote, who dictates actions and requires the drone pilots to confirm kills or reengage. The terminology used in the strikes are shown as an attempt to detach the crew from their actions, but when they’re having to watch their actions on screen, day in and day out, it inevitably takes a toll on those participating.
If only Niccol had put a stronger plot into the surrounding scenes. Or made the characters more engaging. Hawke in particular, who is usually engaging in roles, is stuck with a character who’s already far gone enough to not communicate outside of a barely-there monotone. There’s nothing compelling about Egan, and Hawke is unable to make him interesting. To some degree, that appears to be Niccol’s goal: Egan is supposed to be a broken man. But Niccol fails to illustrate the character in a compelling way. It makes Egan’s inevitable breakdown work less effectively than it should, and makes Niccol’s argument less likely to be taken in by viewers.