Good Kill: Unintentional Zombie Movie Depicts Hard-Knock Drone Life

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I decided recently to digest and review Andrew Niccol’s self-proclaimed thriller “Good Kill,” recognizing that movies about the Air Force are too rare to let them slip by, especially when they purport to wrestle with a subject as timely as the evolving (devolving?) field of drone warfare.

I ran into a problem right away. The movie wasn’t showing much of anywhere in the Boston metro area. I thought maybe there just wasn’t much of an appetite for the genre in this part of the country. After seeing it, I understand why cinemas aren’t picking it up, and why it’s already been released on Amazon and iTunes. It’s not drawing crowds because it’s not very good.

Based on the trailer and advance hype, I was expecting a gritty, hardscrabble drama exposing the uniquely demanding plight of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) operator. Instead, Good Kill seeks to answer an age-old question: how much time can one guy spend staring aimlessly into the sky?

Ever since Luke Skywalker gazed ponderously over the sands of Tatooine, filmmakers have replicated the moment as cinematic shorthand for "I wish I was somewhere else."
Ever since Luke Skywalker gazed ponderously over the sands of Tatooine, filmmakers have replicated the moment as cinematic shorthand for “I wish I was somewhere else.”

We spend much of the movie’s 102 minutes wondering what Ethan Hawke’s character, Major Thomas Egan, is wondering about as he leers quietly across sun-dappled vistas wearing a stupefied look and an utterly perfunctory leather jacket. He might have been thinking “how am I fifty years old and still a major?” Both Hawke and his squadron commander, portrayed by the likable but misplaced Bruce Greenwood, are grossly beyond the plausible age ranges of the characters they portray. While many real-life drone operators are beleaguered, few take on the quasi-fossilized form to which we’re treated here.

Of course, we’ll never know what Egan was thinking, because what Good Kill lacks in storyline, it further lacks in dialogue. The script is anemic, suffering most when we’re observing Egan’s interactions with his family, characters whose superficiality severely hamstrings our willingness to emotionally invest in them.

But even if this film had a better plot and decent characters, we’d still have to bend ourselves into into a logic pretzel to believe any of it. Every film has plausibility issues, because every film strives to represent a much more complex reality in a compact space. But in rare cases, incredulity can severely undermine entertainment value and extracted meaning. Here are just a few transgressions in a list long enough I would have needed a personal stenographer to catch them all:

The phrase “warheads on foreheads” is hardly ever uttered, and certainly not in the workplace.

Officers don’t take an oath to obey an administration. They support and defend the Constitution.

F-16s do not land on carriers.

F-16 pilots are not authorized to give their girlfriends rides in their (single seat!) fighters.

No C-17 pilot calls his jet a “Globemaster.”

Unforced errors like these demonstrate a failure by a filmmaking team to adequately immerse in the subject matter. Doing so wouldn’t have saved this film, but might have made the discerning viewer more forgiving of its other foibles.

The words exchanged by the characters in Good Kill don't ring true. It hurts the movie's message and entertainment value.
The words exchanged by the characters in Good Kill don’t ring true. It hurts the movie’s message and entertainment value.

The plot, such as it is, follows a fairly straight line. Egan works in a trailer in the middle of the Nevada desert, far enough away from Vegas to support the contrivance of a daily commute in a vintage muscle car — complete with a serenade down the strip to juxtapose the moral righteousness of killing in war against the moral decay of Western society. Once at his workplace, he flies a drone that kills people halfway around the world without exposing him to mortal risk. This causes Egan to question how he can face himself if he never faces his enemies. This leads to serial brooding, morning vodka, emotional neglect, and the gradual destruction of Egan’s soul at the teeth of a gnawing conscience.

You get the picture.

But just in case you didn’t, the plot clubs you over the cranium with weepy sob stories about Egan’s longing for his glory days as an F-16 pilot, and how if he could only get back to killing people from merely thousands of feet rather than thousands of miles, his guilt would be vanquished and his sense of purpose restored.

Can a character whine and sob so much that you wish he didn't have a conscience? Good Kill explores this question.
Can a character whine and sob so incessantly that you wish he didn’t have a conscience at all? Good Kill explores this question.

But it’s not to be. Egan is just too damn good at what he does, which is impressed upon us as a routine of periodically interrupting bouts of catatonia to push a few buttons, utter a few words, stare with emotional intensity at the resulting fireball, chasing the tonic of combat guilt with a few energy drinks and another nap.

It’s unacceptable shorthand for a much more complex reality, but it serves as a fine enough vessel for Egan’s journey through an endless string of killings, inviting us to extemporize with him about whether the war he represents is, itself, endless.

That war is both a physical one half a world away and a psychological one waged between Egan’s ears. Picking through the wreckage of an exposition nearly obliterated by so many self-inflicted problems, we can find a few elements of this dual battle that work well.

Good Kill does leave the viewer with uneasiness about the dichotomy of RPA life. Operators disappear through the door of a trailer marked “now leaving the USA,” do unpleasant but important work, and emerge back into ordinary life a few hours later. Egan sums it up: “blew away six Taliban … and now I’m going home to barbecue.”

This captures an essential truth of the drone business. It demands compartmentalization beyond the capacity of most normal, well-adjusted people. The film also highlights the difficulty of openly discussing this problem, given that the drone world is mocked as a cupcake life by outsiders, and doesn’t match up well with traditional notions of military hardship.

But as the film expresses, watching people explode on camera is not free, and the job can feel like an inescapable cycle of blood and ennui to those trapped in it – trapped being the right word. Air Force pilots sent to the RPA community for a temporary detour from their home weapon systems have a hard time rotating back out. Now that a pilot shortage is gripping the community, with only 180 trained each year against a programmed need for 300, the Air Force can’t make any parole promises. RPA pilots are being told to expect at least another year of drone duty no matter how long they’ve already been there, an unwelcome message of hopelessness to many who desperately need a break.

The movie gets this part right. Egan’s commander is shown having scant influence over assignments, and seems helpless to arrest tempo or adjust work schedules even when his people clearly need a break. We watch Egan melt down, progressively drinking more, losing coherence, and over-investing emotionally in his targets. His commander sees the problem and can’t do much to help. It rings all too true. Not only have local commanders been enfeebled by corporate mismanagement of the RPA community, the Air Force has taken to nihilistically shrugging its shoulders when confronted with the problems it has created.

We’re given the impression that Egan’s squadron is less an organization and more a place where people happen to work in the same building. It lacks identity and cohesion, too busy to build them. This too sounds in accurate tones, as does the implication that promotion has nothing to do with job performance.

Notwithstanding Egan’s boozing and occasional insubordination, his boss is also helpless to get him back to an F-16. The film haphazardly attributes some of his trauma to this downgrade “from a Ferrari to a Ford Fiesta,” but the attempt is half-baked and unrealistic. While all pilots have their preferences and flying by remote definitely weighs on the heart of anyone who has slipped the surly bonds, no self-respecting airman would whine about obviously immutable circumstances as frequently and with as little dignity as Egan. And none would wear an unzipped leather jacket in the desert while doing such whining, all the while remarking about the unseasonable heat. Egan’s is the “hotel litho” equivalent of professional bitching, which is understood in the military as an art form.

Most realistic is the movie’s depiction of drone operators as the “garbage men” (and women) of the war effort. Much of the damage to Egan’s eggshell psyche arises from the fact he lacks any meaningful choice in who he kills, and has no valid channel to raise moral concerns. While a “peasant revolt” is always an option, he knows it would destroy his chances of escaping back to his beloved F-16. So he continually yields to a system where faceless bureaucrats have codified a way to make questionable killing legal and now compel junior personnel to carry out their dirty work.

This can be seen as a dilemma of modern airpower and modern warfare in general. The extension of politically determined decisions to the tactical level of war without an accompanying deliberative process is a trend about which not enough people have thought carefully, and it’s among this film’s few redeemable subjects.

Should trigger pullers have enough information about their targets to judge the lawfulness of the orders they’re given? Does our commitment to legality in war require this? Does the Constitutional duty of an officer to safeguard rights and disregard unlawful orders that infringe on them imply the requirement for enough information to meet these obligations? Does the power to kill with impunity heighten, rather than diminish, the necessity to ensure the reasonability of commanders issuing lethal orders, and to brake those orders when necessary? Good Kill hints serviceably at these questions.

But when it tries to get beyond hinting, Good Kill fails for lack of subtlety and skillful storytelling, resorting instead to obvious grandstanding masquerading as character interaction. This makes the movie feel less like a dramatic narrative and more like an excuse for moral jawboning about matters of post-9/11 war and peace. It’s reminiscent of Robert Redford’s dull 2007 disaster Lions for Lambs, and suffers from the same main flaw: once the audience realizes what’s going on, they couldn’t care less what happens to characters serving as documentary props.

Puddle deep character development is probably the movie’s biggest weakness. All we get to understand about these people is that they’re terminally morose or vaguely psychotic, and for unexplained reasons. We don’t really believe Egan’s pathology is explained by his pining for a new assignment, and we are furnished insufficient background to explain it otherwise. Can I get a Dad complex, at least?

Most pilot movies rely on the "ghost of the pilot father" meme to motivate their central characters -- something spoofed in the the hilarious Hot Shots. Good Kill avoids this trap ... but maybe it shouldn't have.
Most pilot movies rely on the “ghost of the pilot father” meme to motivate their central characters — something spoofed in the the hilarious Hot Shots (1991). Good Kill sidestepped this trap … but maybe it shouldn’t have.

Egan’s wife is portrayed as little more than a self-absorbed lush. She tarts herself up for a family barbecue, gawking at one of Egan’s flying buddies like a stripper regards a patron with a fist full of singles. We end up not caring much about their marriage because we’re not sure they eve care about each other. In the end, it’s not clear what is motivating or torturing this guy, and we’re too tired to bother with it. Given the film’s conceit of dramatizing from reality, this lazy version of an Air Force family is unfair and maybe a little insulting.

Egan's wife begs him to open up. He tells her what's on his mind. She doesn't seem to care, and they both return to their previous routines. It occurs to the audience that they'd be better off apart.
Egan’s wife begs him to open up. He tells her what’s on his mind. She doesn’t seem to care, and they both return to their previous routines. It occurs to the audience that they’d be better off apart, and this removes tension necessary for the story to work.

There’s a sequence late in the film where Egan parks adjacent to a mosque and watches robed Muslims as they loiter near the entrance. We have no idea what this sequence signifies. It feels like a lamebrain attempt to show Egan trying to connect with his victims, but there’s too little foundation for the audience to make heads or tails of it. His work colleagues are cardboard cutouts. The bloodthirsty warmonger. The professional foil. The fawning subordinate. 

While the misery of Creech Air Force Base – accurately depicted – adds to the realism of the movie, the key lessons of Top Gun were ignored. If you have a thin plot and vapid characters, at least situate your story within an exotic locale and adorn it with attractive actors, swaddling them in cool music and trendy clothing. Good Kill instead culminates three solid decades of bad Air Force movies. It’s like Iron Eagle without the Hades Bomb, B-side Queen music, or Chappy Sinclair.

As entertainment, it would have been better off aspiring to a sunny “Romancing the Drone” music video, complete with a beach volleyball scene. At least that might have been fun. As a serious comment on the dehumanization of war and those who fight it, the film defeats some of its more promising elements by orbiting at standoff over the narrative battlefield, never descending into enough detail to convey anything worthwhile. This robs the audience of sufficient reason to care what happens to the human drones wandering around on screen.

Good Kill succeeds in the modest task of exploring the trials and contradictions of life in the RPA world, but the depiction lacks heart or entertainment value (aside from unintentional comedy). It also lacks accuracy except at the most abstract level. The real story of the drone community is more troubling in some ways than what we’re shown here.

But perhaps this otherwise frivolous enterprise will awaken a few more people to an unfolding real-life drama with national stakes and a clouded future. Even if it does so through the cliched aviator glasses of a zombified pilot staring aimless into a cloudless sky … when he’s not busy whimpering in the workplace.

★ out of ★★★★

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