Let's go ahead and get the obvious talking point out of the way: Good Kill is the ideological foil to American Sniper. Where Eastwood's picture skewed heavily to the right, almost to the point of unabashed jingoism, director Andrew Niccol's new feature skewers the American military and the war on terror. At least, it desperately wants to. Say what you will about American Sniper – and great deal has already been said – that movie was taut, emotionally resonant, and anchored by a magnificent, transformative performance from Bradley Cooper. Good Kill, in contrast, offers little by way of story or character for the audience to engage with. But worst of all are its politics, which grope unsuccessfully for a powerful statement and treat the audience as though we were imbeciles.
The year is 2010, and Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke, in his third collaboration with Niccol), a seasoned Air Force pilot, is serving his third tour as a drone operator. Stationed in Las Vegas and languishing in a life of domestic routine with his wife Molly (January Jones) and their kids, Egan rejects his colleagues' assertions that they have the ideal assignment. He longs for one thing, and one thing only – to return to the skies as a pilot. As a result of his prolonged frustration he becomes moody and withdrawn, and spends most of his days swilling vodka straight from the bottle. When a new recruit (Zoë Kravitz) joins his team, and they receive orders to carry out a covert mission for the CIA, Egan's lifelong commitment to the military is deeply shaken.
Written & Directed by
Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz
15 May 2015
Josh's Grade: C
If you've had access to the internet or a television anytime in the last, say, decade, you know that drone warfare has stirred up its share of controversy. Operators consistently report the unique horrors of silently executing enemy combatants from the safety of dark metal boxes halfway across the globe; real-life Call of Duty, it seems, is just as capable of generating PTSD as physical combat. This trauma is compounded by the frequency of civilian casualties. Niccol, who also wrote the script, goes above and beyond to portray the evils of this new, remote style of warfare. We'll get to Niccol's role in this mess shortly; first, to his leading man. Hawke, of course, is a fine actor, and his star turn in Niccol's 1997 debut, Gattaca, was moving and intimate, a triumph of restraint coupled with extraordinary ambition. But here, in his effort to convey isolation and torment, he eschews his typical subtlety for an approach that is gruff and in your face; he looks practically weary from exertion. January Jones, in an underdeveloped role, is actually quite good, but the problem is not in her performance; it's in her casting. There is no discernible chemistry between her and Hawke, which saps their domestic drama of its emotional core. It's difficult to sympathize with a struggling couple when their coupling in the first place is preposterous.
Now to Niccol, for if anyone is to be held responsible for the film's greatest flaws, it's him. He almost always directs his own screenplays (Gattaca, Lord of War, In Time), and has a demonstrated tendency to condescend to his viewers. He assumes we lack the ability to think analytically and must have each and every message spelled out, repeatedly, in explicit detail. A choice example from one of Egan's comrades, who is characterized as little more than an unfeeling, right wing buffoon: "It's easier to kill them than capture them. If we capture them, we have to torture them." And that's not the worst of it. Enter the CIA, who are portrayed as faceless villains urging human rights violations at every turn; we hear only their cold, patronizing voices as they spout ludicrously canned party lines. They justify the killing of innocents with, "Many of our targets cynically use women and children as shields," and defend unsanctioned activity in Yemen with, "Out of necessity, this war on terror has become borderless." When the drone operators take out a group of first-responders in a follow-up strike, Kravitz's Vera Suarez, who essentially serves as an avatar of moral indignation, asks incredulously, "Was that a war crime?" Just in case you hadn't caught on.
This is not a conservative critique of liberal bias. This is an objective critique of bad writing. Niccol assumes that a film that actually requires us to think is inferior to one in which we don't have to think at all. But cinema is a visual medium. Showing, in most cases, is more effective than telling. The audience is capable of drawing conclusions without cue cards. Moreover, by reducing his enemies to absurd stereotypes, Niccol reduces his own work to implausible farce. There is no shame in ambiguity; in fact, in a good war film, it's nearly a prerequisite. Take, for example, The Battle of Algiers, from 1966. That picture, about the Algerian war for independence against French imperialists, displayed acts of valor and depravity on both sides of a complicated issue. And what's more, the script was devoid of caricature. Yet the message was still clear. Niccol, as a screenwriter and a director, would do well to learn the virtues of subtlety and nuance.
This all might be forgiveable, or at least easier to overlook, if the story itself was properly engaging. But it's not. There's not much of a dramatic arc, and the tension never really escalates; the climax, if you can call it that, is underwhelming and trite. What we're left with is propaganda, which is at best uninteresting, at worst insulting. And propaganda, whether it's from the right or the left, is propaganda nonetheless. At least when Eastwood makes it, it's entertaining.