Released: 10th April 2015
Directed By: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Ethan Hawke, January Jones
Many of the scenes are emotionless, repetitive and detached, set in a claustrophobic room without windows. These scenes involve the audience looking at monitors, switches and controllers, and are filmed mostly in medium or close shots of the actors’ faces. In most films this would perhaps be disagreeable and boring, but in Good Kill they are exactly what make the film work. This is modern warfare 7000 miles away from the combat zone.
In his third collaboration with director Andrew Niccol, Ethan Hawke plays Tom Egan, a US Airforce drone pilot who is on the brink of breaking point. Through the day to day life of Egan Niccol’s film is rewarding and stakes its place in the pantheon of modern war movies; Niccol is unafraid to show the life of a man in modern warfare unlike that of any soldier I’ve seen before on film. Niccol presents Egan’s life like any man who works a blue collar job; he works shifts in the same location every single day, doing the same process every single time, repeating the steps before, during, and after a strike like he’s part robot such is the systematic nature of what he does. After the shift is done, he drives home, picks up his groceries, helps his kids with their homework.
Unlike most men, however, Egan’s profession is to deliver military strikes on targets which, intelligence says, are terrorist targets. Egan begins to question the orders and the legitimacy of his job when orders begin to come from the CIA – shown by Niccol as speakerphone button on Egan’s telephone. They are just a voice, we never see them. This heightens the stress Egan feels, how can he fire a missile at a crowd of men on a live feed when the person giving the orders cannot qualify the reasons for doing so?
Like many war films where the main character is a long serving soldier, they are often drawn back into service because life outside war no longer makes sense. With Egan we have a man who can no longer serve the purpose of his training and his true skill – a fighter pilot – but he wants to believe in the good the US is doing regardless. Yet with the increasingly blurred lines between right and wrong, one line stood out for me amongst the rest, capturing the tone of Niccol’s film perfectly:
“Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. That’s not up to us. To us it’s just war”
Most war films want to show the surroundings and atmosphere of the war zone where our heroes are deployed, but Niccol only ever shows Afghanistan and Yemen on a monitor. Not once does the action leave the control room where Egan and his co-pilots sit day after day, not once do we hear a sound from the explosions (let alone in deafening surround sound) and not once does the angle change when we’re looking at the foreign land – it’s forever an overhead shot from a mile in the air and the focus is decided by the drone camera, not a cinematic flourish. Furthermore I liked the parallel establishing shots of the Las Vegas desert and the Afghanistan towns – both are a place of turmoil for Egan. This may not look like a clever directorial choice on first glance but Niccol makes some very brave decisions here, and sticks to them.
Ethan Hawke shows once again why he is such a dependable leading actor, he has the ability to take on so many varied roles but always manages to bring a realism to each part he takes. Think how different he is to Denzel Washington in Training Day yet stand his own against Denzel’s scenery chewing; compare this to his work with Richard Linklater’s outstanding ‘Before’ series or recent genre films like Assault on Precinct 13, Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, or even the lacklustre Sinister. In Good Kill we believe the emotional torment he is going through by just an expression or look of resignation, but what we do not need are the clichéd moments which surround Hawke and weigh the film down with familiarity when the exact opposite makes it so appealing.
Egan is an alcoholic, his marriage is breaking down, he and his wife argue constantly and she may be having an affair. We’ve seen this far too many times for Good Kill to offer anything new on the matter, and there are far too many scenes like this which bog the film down. As a study on the impact of war on a man, Niccol shows enough promise with the military side without having to fall back on old troupes in the family side, and some of the dialogue between Egan and his co-pilots is too obvious and direct in the questions of war to ring true. Add to this January Jones opposite Hawke as his wife and the drama fails to ignite when they argue – Hawke is at another level and Jones’ range is stretched too far. There is also a character moment in the final few minutes which was pure nonsense and totally out of sync with the rest of the film’s believability. It’s there to give Egan one final and clear ‘good kill’ after perhaps dozens of questionable strikes, but the reality of his actions would amount to all kinds of consequences. We see him walk away and drive off and Niccol pastes on a redeeming ending which a better film would never have gone anywhere near.
Good Kill may find a wider audience in the years after this war is over and it’s one which I will certainly revisit. Like so many post 9/11 war films, it’s a story the audience might not want to hear and a lead character they may not want to see; but Andrew Niccol may just have given us one of the most important war stories of a generation, if not an entirely successful film.
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