‘Good Kill’: Inside the minds and monitors of drone warriors

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We get all these movies about future battles and wars, with speculation about the amazing and often morally ambiguous ways in which technology will alter the landscape, but with “Good Kill” we’re reminded there’s some startling, stop-you-in-your-tracks stuff going on right now.

Set in 2010, “Good Kill” is fiction based on the reality of today’s warfare. Ethan Hawke is Air Force Major Tom Egan, who spends his day in tight quarters with colleagues as they fight the war on terror via drone strikes.

Under the watchful, unwavering eye of their commander, Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (a perfectly cast Bruce Greenwood), Tom and his crew home in on Taliban compounds and sometimes individual terrorists, waiting until just the right moment to pull the trigger — that is, push a button — and just like that, there’s a flash of fire, and the team waits for the smoke to clear so they can do a body count.

“Good kill,” says Johns, as matter-of-factly as an accounting supervisor would tell everyone in the office they had a solid day crunching numbers.

Sometimes the team gets the order to do a “follow-up” — a benign term for launching a second strike on the same spot, just as people are arriving on the scene to sort through the carnage and search for survivors. From a drone’s-eye view, it’s virtually impossible to know if that second wave is another group of enemy combatants, or if it includes civilians just trying to help.

When Tom emerges from the dark, air-conditioned metal box where he puts in those 12-hour shifts, he whips on his sunglasses and faces a blazing hot day. And then he gets in his muscle car and he drives home, right past the Las Vegas Strip, so he can enjoy a barbecue with the wife and kids.

He’s fighting the Taliban via remote control.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (who teamed with Hawke for “Gattaca” some 18 years ago), “Good Kill” is never subtle and occasionally veers into implausibility. At times military operatives and their superiors engage in debates more suitable for “Crossfire” than a crucial moment of battle, and you can feel the weight of the script infringing on the authenticity of the moment.

But the visuals pack a visceral punch. Every time Tom zeroes in on a target, every time he pushes that button, what we see on those monitors is brutally authentic.

“What’s that woman doing?” asks a superior officer in the aftermath of one strike.

“I believe she’s removing an arm from a tree,” is the response from one of the crew.

Greenwood’s commanding officer drops the f-word every other sentence and barks corny one-liners at his team, e.g., “I’ve got food in my refrigerator that’s older than most of you,” but he’s refreshingly candid with the crew, telling them this isn’t a video game, and they’re shooting real flesh and blood, not pixels. He also admits it sometimes feels as if they’ve got no skin in the game because they’re not in the actual country where the war is taking place. Like Tom, he feels like a coward every day because they’re able to execute the kill with zero risk, zero risk of retaliation.

As Tom puts it, “Why do we wear uniforms?”

Hawke delivers a superb, intense performance as a veteran pilot who did six tours of duty and is faced with the prospect of never actually flying again. His neighbor says it’s gotta be great to be able to do his job and not be away from the family for months at a time — but Tom might as well be overseas, for all the attention he pays to his family.

January Jones does what she can with the obligatory role of the devoted military wife who pleads with her husband to talk to her about his work, to be in the moment, to stop staring up at the skies. Zoe Kravitz and Jake Abel are solid as the supporting characters who serve as talking points — Kravitz playing the voice of conscience, who openly questions whether they’re committing war crimes, and Abel as the gung-ho fighter who reminds them they’re killing terrorists, and if those terrorists put women and children at risk, that’s on them.

It’s amazing what those drones can do. Scary too.

[s3r star=3/4]

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated R (for violent content including a rape, language and some sexuality). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


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