“It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond of it,” says Robert E. Lee. Most veterans, from the Bunker Hill to Afghanistan, would agree with this statement. But what happens if war ceases to be so terrible? This is the question at the center of Good Kill, the latest from Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show)
One of the lasting legacies of the War on Terror, as with other wars throughout history, is new technology, and especially machinery which can kill more efficiently. Whether it proves to be the most significant, the most famous (or infamous) thus far has been the unmanned aerial vehicle— or in common parlance, the drone. And it is these machines and the people who control them that are at the center of Niccol’s movie.
Whether or not Niccol’s somewhat Kafka-esque portrayal of this world is technically accurate, it is to his credit that it does not look false. This might be the first movie to use the word “voluntold” correctly; that probably took some research. But it is far from a normal climate in which the protagonist, Major Thomas Egan, occupies. Played by Ethan Hawke, with a rusted-out, world-weary voice, Egan is a man who appears to be married to his drone console, even though he doesn’t particularly like it. In his own words, the greatest risk he takes in his command post—at Creech Air Force Base, forty minutes from Las Vegas, Nevada—is spilling coffee on his lap.
Obviously, this poses a cinematic challenge. When audiences go to war films, they expect a bit of shoot ‘em up. But watching someone kill bad guys with a drone is, in itself, about as enticing as watching your brother play a videogame. The movie has to build its drama around the narrative and thematic elements which are tangential to the action.
Niccol is a director who we can trust to give this his best shot. Even so, it suffers from the same problems that his earlier movies (think Simone and Lord of War) suffered from: The intellectual elements wash out whatever humanity exists in the film. This is not to say that the movie is horribly acted. Ethan Hawke does a perfectly workmanlike job playing a man at the end of his tether. But it is a role that we have seen before.
The same could be said for January Jones as Major Tom’s wife. They give her a name but to say that she plays a conventional “military spouse” says all that needs to be said. Even the words that characters like this say (“I would have to be in a relationship for it to be cheating”) have been said before; it is just that, last time, similar lines about abandonment and absence were uttered in Brothers or American Sniper.
The cinematic elements of the movie are also in line with the director’s oeuvre. Every shot seems deliberate—as when the camera captures the artifice of the Las Vegas strip that Major Egan has to drive through every single day on his way to work. Perhaps such shots could even be called thematically relevant. However, no shot in the movie is memorable.
But the greater flaw of Niccol’s movie—the one that makes its fairly flat, even though it is somewhat compelling—is its failure to develop a protagonist who holds our attention. Even though he has his flaws, such as alcoholism, Egan is not a particularly compelling character because he is so unambiguously honorable. His flaws never put this identity in check. While there are plenty of people like this in real life, drama often benefits from a little more ambiguity. This is, no doubt, why Richard III and Richard II are the protagonists of memorable Shakespearian tragedies, but Richard I is not.
One longs for a protagonist like the embodied version of the film’s presumptive villain, an indifferent sounding voice whose code name is merely “Langley” and whose only emotion is joy, most on display when ordering an execution. One wonders why Niccol did not choose a code name like “Sheva the Destroyer” instead.
It is understandable why Niccol plays it safe with a main character whose primary moral dilemma is to decide whether or not to follow orders. But Good Kill aspires to be more than a human drama. It wants to be an insightful “issue” movie as well, but it has not chosen a protagonist from whose vantage point the complexities of the issue can be clearly perceived.
This is usually the place where I would talk about a better movie of the same genre, but it is possible that the War on Terror is still too partisan an issue to address honestly. The best movie about it, so far, is probably Zero Dark Thirty, but even that yielded very little insight as to the moral dilemmas that we have been forced to confront. The defining film about the first two decades of the 21st century may have to wait—for another generation.