Good Kill ✮✮✮

WarGames

by Glenn Lovell

Air Force Maj. Thomas Egan, a much-decorated veteran who has logged six tours of duty and 200 combat missions, swoops into action in the skies above Afghanistan and takes out a Taliban stronghold ‒ then drives home to his wife and kids for a backyard barbecue.

How does Egan (Ethan Hawke) manage to combine perilous overseas sorties and domestic routine? Easy when you’re an officer in the Pentagon’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle program, which operates ohawkeut of nondescript trailers outside Las Vegas. By day, Egan sits in front of a surveillance monitor, gently nudging a joystick in the deadliest of video games. By night, racked by guilt and a desire to return to F-16s, he struggles halfheartedly to fit in, to maintain some semblance of normalcy.

“I miss the fear,” he confesses after launching a paper plane across the kitchen. “I feel like a coward taking potshots half a world away … The most dangerous thing I do is drive home on the freeway,”

Directed and written by Andrew Niccol, “Good Kill” is a movie President Obama should see. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s ambiguous but ultimately self-satisfied “American Sniper,” which all but canonizes a rooftop killer, this indie release doesn’t equivocate or attempt to justify drone warfare. It portrays it as cold-blooded and horrifying, Big Brother as eyes-in-the-sky executioner.

Little wonder Egan has trouble sleeping at night and spends more time staring at the sky than interacting with his wife (January Jones). His role in the war against terrorism becomes more untenable when the program is handed off to the CIA, represented by an arrogant, disembodied voice (Peter Coyote) known as Langley. Now, in place of irrefutable intelligence, it takes only gut instinct, a “pattern of behavior,” to ID targets. Now noncombatants wandering by a blast site are seen as “proportionate” collateral damage — “wrong place, wrong time.”

Eastwood spares the kids caught in the cross hairs; Niccol doesn’t.

As you may have sensed, “Good Kill” is an important movie that suffers from smug-to-clunky overstatement. Egan drives to the prefab “war zone” via the Vegas Strip; characters ‒ especially Egan’s superior (Bruce Greenwood) and the program’s newest member (Zoë Kravitz) ‒ don’t so much converse as exchange politically charged talking points. Greenwood’s exec drones on in a briefing about the new generation of Xbox aces being “the future” of the Air Force; Kravitz’s newbie acts, improbably, as Egan’s Conscience, mouthing everything he feels but hasn’t the guts to articulate. “Was that a war crime, sir,” she asks after first-responders to a blast site are “double tapped” (blown to smithereens). “Since when did we become Hamas?”

Others in the program understandably dismiss Kravitz as a bleeding heart peacenik. Walking away, one of them even calls back, “Later, Jane Fonda.”

No, “Good Kill” isn’t the subtlest anti-war film around. Still, it deserves your attention for tackling such a timely and controversial subject. Hawke, who was so likable in “Boyhood,” here relies on square jaw, snap-to comportment, regulation crew cut. It’s a noble, if not particularly accessible, turn. Indeed, to slam home his point about a brave new world monitored by drones, Niccol often observes Egan and his tract home from above. They look puny, vulnerable, like pixels on a game grid. Which of course is the point.

GOOD KILL ✮✮✮ With Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Peter Coyote. Written, directed by Andrew Niccol. 102 min. Rated R (for profanity, sex, rape, dispassionately observed drone violence)

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