We need better War on Terror movies

Andrew Niccol’s anti-drone screed Good Kill is another attempt at intelligent, profound political criticism. But really, where’s our Deer Hunter?

Good Kill
Ethan Hawke and January Jones
One of the defining characteristics of the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s was that the films being made at the time were both timely and uncompromising. Films like Coming Home or The Deer Hunter spoke of the very recent past in a candid and often raw way that didn’t often resort to propaganda and melodrama. Films about war, social upheaval and trauma were certainly nothing new, but those films tapped into something raw and painful in a way that had never been done before. Considering the current state of world affairs (shit’s fucked and getting more fucked by the day), you’d think we were gearing up for a second wave of angry, unvarnished films about the War on Terror and its effects stateside, but nothing has quite managed to hit in the same way. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill is a valiant attempt to humanize the drone issue, but it gets lost in soapy antics somewhere along the way.

Tommy Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a former fighter pilot with six tours of duty under his belt. In an attempt to remain closer to his wife (January Jones) and his children, he takes a job flying drones from an air-conditioned cubicle in the Nevada desert. Egan misses the danger and rush of flying planes; he’s poorly matched for the coldly impersonal destruction of drones and drowns his sorrow in vodka, ignores his wife and generally lives as a cold shell of the exciting hotdoggin’ pilot he used to be. Things get considerably more harrowing when his drone strikes are suddenly commandeered by the CIA, who have considerably laxer rules about who they consider a threat. Egan’s fellow drone operators have no qualms about killing innocent children from 7,000 miles away, but a new recruit (Zoe Kravitz) takes Egan’s side.

Bruce Greenwood and Hawke
Hawke is a weird choice for the gruff, perpetually squinty ubermensch that is Tommy Egan. He appears to be going for a Bruce Willis vibe but Hawke’s slight frame paired with his preternaturally leather-throated burr verges on ill-advised SNL impersonation territory. It doesn’t help that most of his dramatic scenes are alongside January Jones, doing her nth variation on the icily beautiful, ignored wife thing. Hawke and Jones have very little chemistry, and yet their relationship is really what’s at stake in the film. Egan’s job is slowly destroying his life, but we’re hard-pressed to find any reason to care.

That’s probably because Niccol’s chief concern is making an anti-drone screed — and not terribly subtly, either. He peoples the film with rhetoric-spouting strawmen (Egan’s trigger-happy cohorts are basically Ultron made out of Fox News talking points) and beats the point that drones are terrible (a valid point, it must be said) into the ground. The film’s bombing sequences are easily its highlight; tightly-wound and deceptively simple, they recall the tension-thick Cold War films of the 1960s like Seven Days in May and (especially) Fail-Safe as the operators wade through imperceptible, purposefully alienating jargon and end lives with the tap of a button. But as well-crafted as these scenes are, their cause-and-effect barely registers. Things get worse and worse as Egan is asked to do horrible things like bomb a Muslim funeral, but it only registers through the actions of characters that barely feel real in the first place.

You can’t accuse Niccol of being a director without big ideas. Most of his films (the majority of which I’ll cop to not particularly enjoying — even Gattaca, his-best loved film, is one I’m mostly lukewarm on) tackle complex and heady ideas. There’s a kernel of a good, important film in Good Kill but it gets lost in the simplistic characterization and pulpit-pounding rhetoric. That might be the reason why current political films never quite hit the emotional depths of something like The Deer Hunter. We’ve gotten so used to childish comment-section hyperbole and red-faced TV punditry to discuss politics that it seems we sometimes forget there’s a way to approach these things that doesn’t reduce everything down to stats, figures and mirror-punching. Niccol might’ve wanted to keep that in mind.
Good Kill opens in theatres on Friday, May 15. Watch the trailer here: