Good Kill may not be a summer blockbuster, but it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. Writer-director Andrew Niccol manages to fold his agenda into a compelling and believable story about the perils of high-tech warfare. Ethan Hawke is perfectly cast as a fighter pilot who, having completed several tours of duty in Afghanistan, now finds himself reporting to an air-conditioned bunker outside of Las Vegas where he conducts bombing raids using a drone. The film is set in 2010 and declares that it is “based on a true story.”
The idea that he is killing people half a world away, using cutting-edge technology and surveillance cameras, has a strange effect on him. He misses the excitement of piloting a plane and the exhilaration of functioning in the midst of danger. He may be achieving the same goals—with, it might be argued, even greater efficiency—but the fact that he’s hidden from his victims, able to spy on their every move with sophisticated cameras, makes him feel like a coward.
He’s not alone in his discomfort. Even his commanding officer (well played by Bruce Greenwood) has mixed feelings about this brand of warfare, executed by young recruits with gaming skills who’ve never experienced actual combat.
Then there is the toll that this daily exercise takes on Hawke’s home life in the suburbs of Vegas. He has a loving wife (January Jones) and two young children. One of his cohorts says it must be great to have all that and not be gone for months on end, but Hawke isn’t so sure.
Good Kill is an intimate, tightly-focused film, with good supporting roles for Greenwood, Zoë Kravitz, Jake Abel and, as the voice of the C.I.A. in Langley, Virginia, Peter Coyote. It is of a piece with Niccol’s earlier films like Gattaca, Lord of War, and In Time, yet its modest scale seems to have worked to its benefit. Its reach doesn’t exceed its grasp, and its potent message is right on target.