Good Kill Is Potent But Clunky

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Reviewing American Sniper, I argued its lies of omission about the Iraq occupation were an attempt to turn a criminally bungled, uniquely tragic event into a post-9/11 War Is Hell story — one that gave Americans the hero-martyr they desperately wanted but did nothing to illuminate the larger injustice. Hundreds of comments and Facebook messages explained that Chris Kyle died protecting my right to express my filthy, moronic anti-Americanism. I’d thought I was speaking on behalf of Kyle, who should never have been put in that hopeless situation. Perhaps I could have stated that more clearly.

Andrew Niccol presents a radically different view of the “war on terror” in his anti-drone drama Good Kill, which is potent enough to make me wish it were less clunky. It certainly won’t convert the jingoist fighting keyboardists, who probably won’t care that the president at the time the film is set — 2010 — is Obama, under whose watch the use of warrior drones has escalated exponentially. For them, Dick Cheney’s “dark side” still shines brightly.

Ethan Hawke plays the ex-fighter pilot who now wields a joystick in a steel hut in a Las Vegas military compound, blowing up people half a world away at the direction of a superior played by Bruce Greenwood. He can barely handle the disconnect when he’s killing likely killers (“Used to be when we go to war with a country we go to the country”), and he’s devastated when a child wanders into a kill zone in the ten seconds between the bomb’s release and its lethal impact. Then his job gets even worse. His team — which includes Zoe Kravitz as the sexy empathetic humanist and Jake Abel as the indefatigable hawk — is suddenly under the command of the CIA, which orders drone kills willy-nilly based on patently faulty intelligence.

A little too patently, really, and the way Greenwood, Hawke, and the crew question the voice of Langley makes them sound like the editorial board of the New York Times. (Niccol tips his hand by casting lefty Peter Coyote as “Langley” — Coyote doesn’t exactly sell the man’s integrity.) Hawke does well in his innumerable hit-the-bottle scenes and when he struggles to express himself to his neglected wife (January Jones), but you could get nosebleeds from how on the nose the movie is.

It’s still powerful. You don’t have to buy the protagonist’s nostalgia for flying (Would it really feel better if, based on the same faulty intelligence, he were bombing civilians from a plane?) to be sickened by the remoteness of those “good kills,” seen only on black-and-white screens from the vantage of the drones. The CIA calls for follow-up strikes on rescuers who search the rubble, and when everyone is dead the “soldiers” emerge from the darkness into the Nevada desert, the absurd, ahistoric skyline of Vegas in the distance, the alienation from the real world absolute.