The omnipresence of drones in the world’s skies—haunting Afghanistan, hovering over Yemen, delivering your tacos—has lately found its equivalent in world culture and art. Thinkers and creators in many genres have been wrestling with the unsettling implications of this new aerial technology, with its pilotless cockpits and all-seeing eyes. The French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou’s A Theory of the Drone, published last year and recently translated into English—you can read a four-chapter excerpt here—is an unabashedly polemical investigation of the historical, geopolitical, and ethical questions raised by remote-controlled high-tech war. (Chamayou has in turn been criticized, in articles nearly as linguistically dense as A Theory of the Drone itself, for things like stacking the evidentiary deck in his own favor and romanticizing the myth of the boots-on-the-ground “noble soldier.”) In a much-reproduced series of tweets billed as “seven short stories about drones,” the novelist Teju Cole mordantly imagined seven great protagonists of world literature destroyed by fire from the sky before their stories could even begin. At New York’s Public Theater, Anne Hathaway is starring in Grounded, a one-woman show directed by Julie Taymor in which Hathaway plays an alienated former F-16 pilot going slowly insane as she wages remote-controlled war in Afghanistan from in front of a screen in Nevada. Slate’s war correspondent Fred Kaplan recently wrote of Grounded: “As drama, it’s overwrought; but as prediction, there’s something to it.”
That more or less aptly summarizes my critical response to Good Kill, Andrew Niccol’s new movie starring Ethan Hawke as a tightly wound Air Force pilot not unlike Hathaway’s character in Grounded. Having served several tours as a combat pilot, Tommy Egan now flies only virtually, operating the controls of drone aircraft in Afghanistan from inside a tiny metal box at an installation near Las Vegas. (Aerial views of the dusty, treeless military base where Tommy lives and works are at first difficult to tell apart from the bird’s-eye views of Afghan targets he stares at on screens all day, a resemblance Niccol notes early and a little too often.)
You might think of Tommy Egan as the reverse of your prototypical Ethan Hawke character: He’s thoroughly un-laid-back, utterly lacking the gift of the gab, and not much of a charmer with the ladies. In fact, he’s a rigid, inarticulate knot of anguish, unwilling to discuss even the most mundane details of his job with his wife, Molly (January Jones), or their two children. Stashed in his bathroom cabinet Tommy keeps a bottle of vodka from which he swigs in secret to deal with the guilt and shame he feels about spending his days as a dealer of death from above. His remote relationship to the people he kills keeps him at an increasing remove from the people he loves. Hawke, who’s been growing as an actor as he reaches middle age, gives an admirably controlled performance, resisting the urge to win the audience over with melodrama or pathos. Tommy Egan is often far from likable as a protagonist—he’s morose, prone to violent outbursts, and deaf to his wife’s pleas for attention and love. But he’s someone whose moral struggles remain powerfully important to us because Hawke never stops showing us how deeply they matter to Tommy. The characters around him, though, often seem like artificial creations, serving mainly to facilitate Tommy’s revelations and crises.
The script, also by Niccol (who directed Hawke in the 1997 sci-fi thriller Gattaca and also wrote The Truman Show) asks important and ambiguous questions about the costs and benefits of drone warfare. It’s set in 2010, a year in which drone strikes rose sharply due to the Obama administration’s increased use of “signature strikes”: drone attacks aimed not at specific terrorist targets but at suspicious patterns of behavior. (The use of signature strikes peaked in 2010 and has since decreased.) The film tracks this period of policy transition, as Tommy and his co-workers must start taking orders from a CIA agent they know only as a voice on the phone. (It belongs to Peter Coyote, one of cinema’s most distinctively sinister voices.) Niccol spends plenty of time pondering the complexities of this new form of warfare-by-surveillance. The trouble is, most of this pondering emerges from the mouth of a single character, Bruce Greenwood’s Lt. Col. Jack Johns, who breaks the issues down for his crew and the audience in lengthy speechifying soliloquies. Greenwood is a terrific actor, but even he can’t save this role, which serves the dual and deadly purposes of providing exposition and delivering a didactic message: Increasing the military’s power to decide the fate of people observed from unmanned planes in countries we’re not even at war with is a really, really bad idea. The minute a moral quandary begins to take shape in the viewer’s mind, up pops Greenwood to lay it out for us, usually in the form of rhymed military slang.
Tommy’s co-workers in that claustrophobic metal box include his “co-pilot” Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz), who’s responsible for fixing their targets in her laser sights before Tommy delivers the final command to fire. (Kravitz is having a rough week of it, simultaneously struggling with the ethics of postmodern warfare and battling post-apocalyptic warriors in Mad Max: Fury Road.) Vera is more vocal about her objections to the “signature strike” policy than Tommy; she debates it in the mess hall with some of their more gung-ho colleagues. She also flirts with Tommy, sometimes to the point of painful obviousness, but he’s either too monogamous or too emotionally locked down to notice. Meanwhile, his clandestine drinking and paranoid suspicions about his wife’s imagined infidelities are becoming serious enough to mess with both his performance at work and the future of his marriage.
A movie about the particularly dissociative kind of post-traumatic stress disorder that drone warfare seems likely to induce in those who wage it—and has indeed already induced in the society that employs it—is a movie America could really use right now. But Andrew Niccol hasn’t made that movie with the earnest, pedantic Good Kill—a title, by the way, that this heavy-handed film uses as a line of dialogue no fewer than three times. Good kill is a phrase Tommy breathes to himself as his ordnance reaches its destination, hoping against hope that when the smoke clears there will be no civilian bodies in the wreckage. The first time we hear him say those words, less than a minute into the film, it isn’t clear that Tommy grasps the bleak irony of the phrase, but the audience does. By the time the words’ true horror begins to dawn on him, the noise in our ears is deafening.