Turn Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” upside down and you’d have Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill.”
Niccol’s film isn’t as powerful or as well-made as Eastwood’s – not by a long shot. But there’s nothing disingenuous about it either. I had far less trouble believing it than I did Eastwood’s powerful portrait of a prodigious sniper who left behind a memoir and a variety of disturbing public utterances and controversies revealing him to be rather different from the man Eastwood and his actor Bradley Cooper depicted.
Ethan Hawke stars in “Good Kill” as an Air Force Major who served six tours of duty as a pilot in the Middle East and has now been chained to a chair for three tours as a pilot of UAV’s – drones – that strike targets 7,000 miles away.
His commanding officer matter-of-factly tells the new recruits on their base outside Las Vegas that “the U.S. is ordering more drones than jets [now]. … Drones aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re going everywhere.”
It’s a new air war they’re fighting in Afghanistan, a place that, his fellow soldiers ruefully observe, “Gengis Khan” couldn’t even “hold.”
The major, at first, seems temperamentally perfect for his work of striking dwellings and crowds of people thousands of miles away. But the fact is that with alienating, sickening accuracy they’re putting “warheads on foreheads” across an ocean. He is calm and quiet and even-tempered. When they can see a strike reach its target 10 seconds after launch, he says “good kill.”
He’s a quiet man who doesn’t get angry, his wife (January Jones) tells a friend. What happens when he does get angry?, she’s asked. He gets more quiet, she answers.
These are some very soft-spoken and quiet days for the major. He’s not being dramatic about it but his not being able to fly actual planes is chewing him up inside and spitting out the seeds. “I’m a pilot,” he says. “But I’m not flying. I don’t know what I’m doing but it’s not flying.”
His wife and CO can see the signs even if no one else can. In his wife’s case, his frustration and doubts are stealthily ravaging their marriage. They still have sex but it’s not like it was when he was off for long tours and then home for brief periods of “I and I” – “intoxication and intercourse.” He can’t tell his wife what his day is like on the job – or what it’s doing to him.
She can see it though.
He can go to a food store and tell the kid behind the counter as he buys a fifth of vodka and a half-gallon of milk that he just “blew away six Taliban in Pakistan. And I’m going home to barbecue.”
It gets worse when his unit is reassigned to the control of those his superior calls “Christians In Action” – the CIA. “Running missions for spooks” means trusting their judgments on whom to blow away and whom not to.
After one drone mission, the major’s female co-pilot asks everyone in their unit pointedly “was that a war crime? When did we become Hamas?”
And while all this is going on, with their devastatingly up-close drone surveillance of civilians, they can see an Afghan soldier repeatedly rape a civilian woman without getting caught.
This is all very capably done. Hawke has the latent power of a ticking time bomb through most of the movie. We in the audience know it’s only a matter of time before bottles of vodka stashed in the bathroom will stop being an answer.
It is, as I said, not distinguished by performances as powerful as those in “American Sniper,” no matter how questionable those wound up being.
These people are all trying to keep it together – to “compartmentalize” like crazy in order to continue their lives without flying apart.
There are limits. We in the audience know that. What we want to see in the film is where those limits are.
And we do.
It’s a powerful film from a filmmaker who genuinely worries about alienation and life and war in the future. Niccol has been an uncommonly interesting filmmaker for a long time. (See “The Lord of War” and “Gattaca” and “The Truman Show,” which he wrote.)
Unlike “Sniper,” history hasn’t supplied a perfectly rueful and symmetrical ending for this story. It’s still going on.
Everyone in this movie, as it ends, is still in a “hurt locker” of his or her own.
Starring: Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kravitz
Director: Andrew Niccol
Running time: 102 minutes
Rating: R for violence including a rape, language and sex.
The Lowdown: Angry and alienated American drone pilots in Nevada push buttons to kill targets 7,000 miles away.