The bravery of being out of range
As Good Kill shows, the remotely controlled drone has completely transformed modern combat, turning war into a first person shooter.The film reunites writer/director Andrew Niccol with his Gattaca star Ethan Hawke, who plays fighter pilot Tom Egan. After six tours in Iraq, Egan finds himself assigned to fly drones from an airforce base outside Las Vegas. He wants to return to real flying but as the airforce places more emphasis on drones and mothballs more fighters, his hopes are evaporating. Despite safely being able to see his wife and kids every day, Egan misses the excitement and danger of real combat. He also begins to question his role as drones are employed in more and more ethically questionable ways.The film directly addresses the use of drones as an offensive weapon and how the US has changed its tactics in the 'war on terror'. As a result there's a fascinating insight into exactly how drones actually operate. For example, drones are apparently very difficult to take off and land, so this is handled by one set of pilots in the actual theatre of conflict, whilst another set of pilots in the US then take over for operations. So you end up with the slightly surreal sight of pilots sitting in trailers on an airforce base outside Las Vegas operating drones flying over Afghanistan.
It's no coincidence that Niccol chose Las Vegas for the location of his airforce base because where else could such a surreal occupation take place than the most surreal city imaginable. The artificial nature of Las Vegas mirrors the artificial role of the pilots and in a briefing scene their commander, played by Bruce Greenwood, explicitly states that the drone programme was based on computer games. He then goes on to stress that it isn't a game and when you pull the trigger you are genuinely killing someone. Although the artificial nature is made explicit when, at one point, Egan asks why they even bother wearing flight suits.
This blurring of the lines between what's real and what isn't is frequently stressed in the film, especially in the scenes showing the pilots operating the drones. A sign on the door of the trailer stating 'You are now leaving the United States' sets the tone, whilst the sight of two pilots staring at monitors starts to feel like watching a video game. In fact the airforce are actually recruiting drone pilots from shopping malls for that very reason and the amount of actual time new pilots spend in a real plane is limited. To emphasise this, during the film Egan is assigned a much younger new co-pilot played by Zoe Kravitz.
The drone technology on display is impressive, although even the USAF has to deal with real world issues familiar to any gamer such as lag. It's Egan's ability to imagine himself in the drone in Afghanistan and deal with things like lag that make him such an effective pilot. However despite the distances involved, operating a drone isn't as impersonal as you might imagine. The use of high resolution cameras and powerful lenses mean that the drone operators can clearly see who they are killing and the results of their actions. The combination of boring surveillance missions and collateral damage begins to take its toll on Egan, especially as part of the job is to assess the damage and number of dead
Niccol's film addresses the impersonal, almost surreal, nature of modern warfare.
As a result Egan acts almost like a drone himself, remotely going through life and hardly interacting with his family. He is essentially a high-functioning alcoholic and although most of his fellow pilots like the idea of being able to go home to their families each day, Egan's relationship with his wife, played by January Jones, is disintegrating. However it's when his drone unit is assigned to work directly for the CIA that the mission become less about killing bad guys and more about pre-emptive strikes where the civilian cost is considered acceptable. Egan begins to question the ethics of his role, the drone programme and even US foreign policy - forcing him ultimately to make a choice.
The performances, especially from Ethan Hawke and Bruce Greenwood, are very good and as you'd expect from Andrew Niccol the script has some interesting ideas, even if its message and the points it tries to make are rather obvious. Although Niccol has never really impressed as a director, there's little you can really do when much of the film involves five people in a trailer looking at video monitors. He does at least manage to squeeze some tension out of certain scenes and it's good to see Niccol back on form after the disaster that was The Host. Ultimately Good Kill achieves what it set out to do, entertain you whilst demonstrating the surreal nature of modern warfare.
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