War… War never changes…
Except, it does. At an alarming rate, and so fast many people no longer recognise the battlefield, and have no idea the effects modern warfare has on today’s troops. Enter Good Kill, a film from The Truman Show writer and Lord of War‘s writer/director Andrew Niccol, examining the impact of the United States Air Force’s increasingly large spear; the drone programme.
Ethan Hawke (Training Day) stars as Major Thomas Egan, a fighter pilot who’s already served several tours in a jet and now works from an air-conditioned cubical in a Las Vegas; allowing him to remotely pilot drones in Afghanistan, take out the Taliban, and still get home in time to whip-up a BBQ for the wife and kids.
It’s a curious reality which seems like it’s been lifted straight out of a science-fiction tale (a family man who goes to work, sits in a cubicle and spends his days blowing up the bad guys before he heads home to an outwardly normal life), yet this is reality for an ever increasing number of men and women in the USAF (United States Air Force), and Andrew Niccol’s film does a fantastic job of exploring the impact this change in war has both on the battlefield, and at home.
At home, the public not only refuse to believe what Egan has been doing (on the rare occasion he talks and tells someone), but treat him and everyone involved with the use of UAVs with a measure of distain, distrust, and outward contempt, despite the programmes clear and measurable successes, and his own wife can’t understand why he’s so sullen, withdrawn, and affected seen as how he’s home every night and not actually on a battlefield (neglecting to think about the fact he’s still actually killing people).
Good Kill is based around those influences (people failing to understand the job these pilots do), and the duality of the pilots’ lives; spending their days making life-and-death decisions, operating in a theatre of war, killing people, and being expected to simultaneously live a normal (essentially 9-5) everyday life, without being able to talk about anything they’ve done or seen.
Needless to say the duality takes its toll on our protagonist (as it does with many a soldier), and Good Kill shows us an excellent example of a gradual breakdown; where the pressures of Egan’s work and home lives (he desperately wants to get back in a plane, while his wife just wants him to be happy at home and open up more) continue to clash, remain incompatible, and lead to drinking, arguments, and an internal struggle which explodes in a reactive, relatable, and regrettably realistic manner which will leave you thinking about the programme, modern warfare, and the effect it’s really having on the new generation of military personnel.
Hawke does a fantastic job of conveying the internal struggle, delivering a monotone performance which seethes with a quiet intensity (you’re constantly expecting him to snap and either explode or implode in spectacular fashion, despite his actions actually suggesting he’s rather calm), and is backed up with a solid cast of supports; January Jones (X-Men: First Class) plays her most relatable role in the struggling wife who’s unable to connect with her increasingly distant husband (effectively portraying the repression of internal sadness/anger felt by many a military spouse), Zoë Kravitz (X-Men: First Class) is well placed as the new member of the drone-team who struggles with the morals of repeated strikes and potential civilian casualties, and Jake Abel’s (I Am Number Four) also well cast as the gung-ho member of the team, who’s simply happy to be sticking it to “Johnny Jihad.”
Yet, while he gives a fairly generic performance, it’s the Lieutenant Colonel played by Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) who stands out as the most memorable (at least politically insightful) characters in the entire film; having a great deal to say about recruiting gamers, having to remember it’s not just pixels they’re blowing up (it’s people), and even following orders when you may think a strike poses an unnecessary risk to women, children, or simply innocent men. Giving you plenty to think about and discuss once the end credits roll.
Niccol turned in an excellent script here which not only gives us an uncomfortably realistic look into the effects this kind of war can have (on the country where it’s used, warfare in general, and the soldiers who’re charged with executing it), but managed to do so without showing too much political bias; there’s no clear-cut good or bad guy here. Everyone in Good Kill makes mistakes, they’re all broken in some way, and at the end of the day it’s up to you to decide if you think drone warfare is a good thing or not (sure it protects the troops from physical harm, but is it fair? ethical? and do we really know what the psychological impact of conducting these missions is for our own soldiers?).
Direction is also solid, and while there’s a great deal of repetition (both of of necessity; as the majority of the film takes place either in one of the converted shipping containers used as min command stations or at Egan’s house; and design; highlighting the repetition in Egan’s life, the monotony of it, and the blurring of work and home), Niccol manages to draw you into the action through clever joystick close-ups, and taking us into the monitor to see what the pilots see, and where the missiles will land.
It’s far from your average war film, and there’s next to no action in it, but that’s what makes Good Kill work; it’s a think piece, and one which is brilliantly executed thanks to the efforts of a solid cast, and above all a keen writer/director who endeavours to not influence anyone, but simply shine a light on the way things are; giving you a glimpse into the changing face of war, asking you to make up you down mind about it, and in the process crafting a film which is far more poignant than American Sniper.
Given it’s set in sunny Las Vegas (and Afghanistan) Good Kill‘s colour profile leans to the warm side but never suffers for it; skintones are acceptable and stable throughout, textures are solid, detail is strong, and while the blacks aren’t the deepest they could be (appearing rather grey during some of the more low lit interior scenes) the overall image is consistently strong. Barring the odd halo here and there, there’s very little to grumble about in regards to Good Kill‘s picture quality; not astounding, but more than adequate.
While fairly subdued for the most part, Good Kill‘s 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix does a fantastic job of creating a life-like soundscape. What little bass there is never sounds tinny, there’s just enough ambient noise to keep the rear channels busy (or eerily quiet if needs be), and thankfully the most important part of the entire mix, the dialogue is spot-on; well levelled, anchored, and never suffering from any drop-out. A subdued, but perfectly capable mix all round.
Bundled on the Blu-ray release of Good Kill are two interviews (one with Ethan Hawke, and one with director Andrew Niccol; both of which are fairly generic), and a behind the scenes featurette which is far too much of an EPK feature, but does come with plenty of behind the scenes footage (sadly. given the material, it’s mainly people standing in the desert, or walking in and out of containers), and cover most aspects of the film; from the story, the characters, the director, and Good Kill‘s authenticity. However that’s the extent of the bonus material, making for a fairly average selection of special features which feels like it’s lacking that one special something (an interview with real drone pilots discussing the way war’s changing may have made for an interesting watch for example).
The Bottom Line:
This isn’t an action film. If you’re hoping for the next Black Hawk Down, watch Lone Survivor. If you want the next American Sniper, there’s probably a PR video playing at your local recruitment centre. But if you want a decent story, a well acted, scarily realistic, well thought-out commentary on the modern face of warfare, then watch Good Kill.
With decent (thought not outstanding) picture, audio, and special feature bringing the film to Blu-ray, there’s also no reason not to watch Good Kill; a thought-provoking look at an unexplored area of modern warfare. Niccol’s direction is superb, Hawke is intensely powerful, and while it won’t satisfy the bloodlust of many war-film fans, it will get you thinking, get you talking, and thankfully doesn’t preach.
Powerful. Poignant. Purchasable.
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