A story of soldiers conflicted about their mission is nothing new. What the absorbing Good Kill ably reckons with is how the means of that assignment — rather than just the goals of the mission itself — send one lauded pilot into an emotional tailspin.
It’s 2010 and Ethan Hawke is Major Thomas Egan, a veritable fury in an F-16 who now sits in air-conditioned comfort in the southern Nevada desert carrying out drone strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Under the command of no-nonsense but somewhat war-weary Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (a very good Bruce Greenwood), he’s adept at strategically taking out bad guys during the workday and then going home to sprawling Las Vegas suburbia to set up the barbecue and knock back a few drinks with his family, including wife Molly (January Jones).
It’s this extreme dichotomy that pushes Egan to the breaking point. He wants to return to the Middle East to fly again because then he’d at least have some skin in the game, there’d at least be the chance he’d never make it out alive, just like the enemy combatants he now so easily targets remotely.
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Instead, he has the worst of both worlds: the boredom of the corporate cubicle coupled with the death that inevitably accompanies war.
A new recruit, airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), understands his anguish, especially after he and his colleagues are told they are now reporting to the CIA. Whereas before they were only targeting bad guys or guys who seemed to be clearly on their way to do bad things, the scope is suddenly widened to include softer targets — such as women, children, a farmer going about his business — who may or may not be the real enemy.
The increasing disconnect between Egan’s deeds and desires — Johns says there’s no way he’s going back overseas, while Molly says familial responsibilities outweigh everything else — ratchets up the tension with his increasingly alienated wife and workmates.
Directed and written by Andrew Niccol (whose phenomenal 1997 film Gattaca also starred Hawke), and supposedly “based on actual events,” Good Kill raises important questions about the nature of modern warfare, but it is a bit heavy-handed and strained.
Two of Egan’s more gung-ho associates — who have no issue with drone strikes or their collateral damage — seem to be there just so Niccol can say he has the other side represented, and the ending feels too neat.
But what saves it is Hawke’s nuanced performance of a man who feels trapped and Niccol’s spare style that underscores Egan’s isolation. For these reasons, Good Kill hits its target.
Exclusive: Premiere Cinemas 14, Burleson; Look Cinemas, Dallas; video-on-demand
Director: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Ethan Hawke, January Jones
Rated: R (violent content including rape, strong language, sexuality)
Running time: 102 min.