“War all the time” —Charles Bukowski.
Since 9/11 the US has bombarded Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and countless other countries with drone strikes. These drones, or unmanned aerial missiles—to give them their technical name—are piloted from the relative safety of US soil, were they are controlled not so much by soldiers, but by video-gamers. Video-gamers with their finger on a much realer trigger. The drones hover invisibly over their targets for days on end, finally blowing them to bits when the signal is given. The man or woman who slings the missile is never seen, not because they are so far away that it would be nearly impossible to, but because it would be entirely unfeasible as they are not even in the same timezone. A missile killing a dozen suspected terrorists in Islamabad is likely to have been fired by a guy with a polystyrene coffee-cup on his lap in Nevada. This is modern warfare.
Such modernism is the subject of Andrew Niccol’s new film, Good Kill, which presents drone pilot Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) as a man crippled into alcoholism by the ethical and moral choices his job forces him to make. If that sounds like a familiar premise, then know that Good Kill is far from familiar. Part war film, part family drama, part character study, Good Kill goes canon as perhaps the best film about the War on Terror.
This is high praise considering the brilliance of last year’s American Sniper, but Good Kill matches and surpasses Clint Eastwood’s effort, if not in box-office, exposure and reception, then in scope, performance and execution. (Note: I loathe the current trend of insisting that one film has to be compared to another, similar film, but so be it. There’s no reason these two pictures can’t co-exist as great works on the Second Gulf War, side-by-side. It would make a great, albeit melancholy double-bill.) Niccol has crafted a great war film to go along with his great science-fiction one (the still underrated Gattaca), and, like that one, he uses genre specificity—in this case establishing shots of army bases, military jargon (“the missile is off the rail”), contrasting army types, and patriotic, patriarchal commanders—as padding around what is actually complex character study.
Egan, despite having the flight-suit and aviators to uncannily suggest otherwise, is actually closer to Tony Soprano than he is Maverick or Goose. Where once he completed six tours of duty flying an F-16, he now plays Xbox with soldiers who have never set foot on enemy soil. He sees his wife and kids every day after work and he hates it. This subversion (most soldiers on film long to see their loved ones every day) makes him uneasy; he feels a coward. He can’t be the father and husband he needs to be. If he’s not flying he’s not anything. He’s not there. He hits the bottle and he once hit his wife. PTSD isn’t once mentioned, but it’s clear that’s what he has. He is shell-shocked, half a world away from any shells. His condition worsens when the CIA takes over operations and force him to make his moral choices amoral. His commander, Johns (a scene-stealing Bruce Greenwood), a genial General Patton, sees what’s happening and laments the psychological loss of his best soldier. He finds some salvation in a young recruit (Zoe Kravitz) but he’d rather neck a vodka than her. His wife (a hallucinatory January Jones) may or may not’ve cheated on him but how can he be mad when he’s more in love with combat than he is her?
This complexity of character is what sets Good Kill apart from most war films: where most are concerned with a central character who cannot function with what he or she has seen, this one concerns a man who cannot function because he cannot see it anymore.
Much of the credit must go down to Ethan Hawke here, the most underrated and perhaps best American actor of the last 20 years. There isn’t an actor’s presence in a film that makes me happier than Hawke’s, and Tom Egan ranks amongst his best performances—his eyes in a key moment towards the end of the film, in a passage that attains an almost mystical beauty, say everything you need to know about the man as an actor. It’s a shame that more people will not be talking about it.
That can be said of Good Kill, too, which will no doubt slip under the radar, never achieving the same kind of success as The Hurt Locker or American Sniper. Don’t let that put you off though; this is just as good, and better.