May 20 2015 01:58 PM

Andrew Niccol's toothless drama about drones simplifies the human cost of war


A flagrant attempt to cash in on the political discussion over drone use in foreign wars, Andrew Niccol's Good Kill patronizes the audience with grandstanding sensationalism and rhetoric. Not quite a thriller and hardly a substantive anti-war statement, the film resides somewhere inside a purgatory of muddled theatrics. Its purposefully melodramatic story revolves around conflicted Air Force officer Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), a stalwart military man who used to fly combat jets but has now been relegated to operating UAVs on patrol in Afghanistan from an air-conditioned tin can on a military base in the Nevada desert.

During the film's opening salvo, Tom executes orders swiftly and with resolve. His job is to rain down ordinance on enemies of the United States without reproach. But innocent lives sometimes get caught in the crossfire. After one instance where two young boys perish at Tom's hands, his faith in the mission becomes jaded. Much of this downward slide is brought on by rampant alcohol abuse, untreated PTSD and a brutal series of CIA-orchestrated attacks that force Tom to become uncomfortably self-reflective. Things at home are also crumbling around him, too; his wife Molly (January Jones) may be having an affair with a neighbor, leaving their two young children in a precarious spot.

Niccol makes it apparent that he's fascinated by the tension between military warfare tactics and the men who practice them. A veteran of six tours in the Middle East, Tom sways toward the old-school camp; he'd rather be in country fighting the Taliban than operating some first-person shooter system from 7,000 miles away. Two younger airmen in his unit represent the millennial generation ready to kill with the press of a button. Niccol allows both sides ample time to preach, with a superior officer played by Bruce Greenwood caught in the middle.

Good Kill wants to reveal the moral and social contradictions of UAVs by focusing intensely on the inner conflict of one man consumed by the profession. But it does so with a broad sword instead of a scalpel. Every word out of the characters' mouths seems like it could have been ripped from a politician's speech. The character nuances compromised by such a situation are ignored. Niccol and Hawke have worked together before on the superior sci-fi drama romance Gattaca, but with Good Kill neither seems to be on the same page.

"I miss the fear," Tom says late in the film to a new recruit named Vera (Zoë Kravitz), who's the closest he has to a friend. He's speaking about the risk involved from putting your life on the line for one's country, as opposed to the safe distance drone operators work from in the war on terror. It's an interesting statement that suggests Niccol has made a far more conservative film than the premise might suggest.

Convoluted ideologies aside, Good Kill simply fails as a character study. It spells out each tumultuous plot point with wretched dialogue spoken by disinterested actors. As Tom falls deeper down the rabbit hole of his own making, Niccol asks the audience to care about his self-destruction simply because he's having a crisis of purpose. Even more egregious, there's a subplot involving a recurring rape onscreen, witnessed by one of the omniscient drones. It's offensive where this thread ends up, primarily because it affirms the role of America as both a witness and a savior to those savages of the third world.

It's more than a little scary that the only character that seems right at home is the faceless CIA operative known only as Langley (voiced by Peter Coyote). This evil bastard knows exactly what he wants, leveraging the weak-willed to do its dirty work. At least Good Kill understands what true evil sounds like. 

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