Good Kill, is one of those movies that you either will find compelling or largely irrelevant. Being former military, and being a pacifist, I found this film to be exceptional in dealing with the issues that confront our current society and culture when it comes to the ever changing face of modern warfare and the ethics of the “war on terror”, and the increased use of computerized death machines that inflict carnage, increase the risk of “collateral damage”, and minimizes the risk of loss of life on your own side. It underscores what actually occurred in 2013, when the US Administration under President Obama has received the go ahead from the Department of Justice to use drone strikes to target anyone in the world. This is the backdrop of the story.
The plot is well written and developed for the story of the lead character, Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawk) who has transitioned from an F-16 pilot to the “joy stick pilot) of a unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). He pilots drone missions remotely from Las Vegas, Nevada, where the drones fly over enemy territory in Afghanistan. Egan is part of a five person team, and is the main “pilot” and “pulls the trigger” on targeted enemy positions and personnel. He is assisted by a “navigator” that guides and directs him to the target, and then he locks unto the target, and fires the missiles remotely. Early on in the film, the CO, Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) reveals to new trainees that the whole UCAV system has been influenced by “X-Box”.
This “justified war” them becomes an ingrained theme in the film, the theme of “video death” or “death from afar”, no mess no fuss. It is justified by Col. John’s as “Don’t ask me if it’s a ‘just war’, for us, it’s just war.” He reinforces the argument by saying the US doesn’t have to worry about captured US soldiers betraying their countries on Al Jazeera and then being beheaded. It is a repeated mantra throughout, a mantra of “just following orders”, and “we kill them before they can kill us”.
Being stateside after six tours of combat flying F-16’s is a trifle boring for Egan. He is home with his wife and two kids, nice and safe, but the fire in his belly, the thing that gives his life meaning and purpose is gone. He is bored by being a “drone pilot” and does all he can to be re-assigned to an actual fighter squadron. His wife finds out and doesn’t understand him or his desire for danger. This theme is reinforced throughout the film. Up until this time, Egan and his team have been able to justify the actions of his government, his fellow pilots, and the “just means of force” to “protect America and Americans”.
The change in this story happens when Egan’s unit is assigned to, and tasked out, to the C.I.A., to make strikes for the “war on terror” on targets the U.S. Administration has deemed to be a “threat to America and Americans”. This is where the film really takes off on the issue of “just war” and “collateral damage” and how the “video war” has depersonalized the “face of war” and blurred the lines between a “justified war target” to a “war crime”. The C.I.A. targets, without justifying it to the crew, and the crew carrying out the orders, have questions as to who the targets are, and they range from apparent civilians, to those people who are at funerals, or rescuing people who are injured. The C.I.A orders secondary strikes to ensure maximum effect (The C.I.A. used these tactics in Pakistan as well). This theme is explored through the interpersonal conflicts on Egan’s team, including the CO, and Egan himself as they are instructed to kill both unarmed civilians as well as unknown “enemy” targets.
The C.I.A. commands strikes that two of the team members, including Egan, have increased problems with. Egan becomes increasingly troubled, and on the next mission flight, when ordered by the C.I.A. to fire a strike on a vehicle, Egan deliberately loses the target, and the Johns, the CO asks another officer on the team to take over. Egan and Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) turn to drink and going to bars to cope with the strain. Other team members seem to be totally brazen to what they are commanded to do and justify the kills.
Throughout a series of incidents where an Islamic woman is raped in each sequence by an armed male who comes to her home and violates her, and each time the team is troubled by what they see on the satellite image, and are helpless to do anything about it. The CO Johns, Suarez and Egan are all troubled, and look at each other as if to day, “What can we do?” We are left thinking the same thing. We are left even thinking, “fire a damn missile at this idiot!” The rapes happen several more times and each time the crew is affected.
Egan is confronted by Johns and is removed from active strike missions and is left to fly drones for reconnaissance. Egan knows he is in trouble as the CO (Johns) has to make a report to those higher up about this incident, and Egan knows it will cost him both his promotion and also is guaranteed to nix the opportunity to return to active combat flying.
In one last act of both defiance, and cleansing his own conscience. In a closing sequence, Egan, locks the door to his unit hut, and applies the C.I.A. protocol to not record the mission, no audio, no video, no satellite recording. He sets up the mission control, and locks in on the target, the “rapist” who is coming back to the woman’s home. He launches the strike, just as the woman is coming to the door way, and the impact kills the rapist, and knocks the woman down. For a moment Egan is in shock. He has launched the strike to save the woman and she is down. Relief comes to his countenance, when the woman’s small son comes to her, and she recovers and appears to be fine. The last sequence has Egan hearing a knock on the door and his name being called. Egan turns off the sequence he just completed, and opens the door, and walks out. At the door is his CO, Johns, with Military Police, waiting for Egan. Egan just walks past them, even when his name is called, and you see Egan’s car driving off the base, and instead of turning right, to go back home, he turns left, and disappears down the road.
This film is well worth watching.
It really shows the struggle, emotionally and spiritually and ethically that military personnel and their families go through as they deal with the strain of combat, especially “remote controlled death” from afar. It is well worth adding Good Kill to the discussion about modern warfare and the face and ethics of continual war on “our enemies”. It is a worthy contribution to the conversation that needs to go on.
Details of the film:
Directed by Andrew Niccol
Written by Andrew Niccol
Music by Christophe Beck
Cinematography Amir Mokri
Edited by Zach Staenberg
Distributed by IFC Films