Good KillReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/28/15 17:48:11
Writer/director Andrew Niccol has never been a guy who had a problem with letting the audience know exactly what he is getting at with his movies, and that's certainly the case when he sets his movies in the recent past rather than the indefinite future. Surprisingly, "Good Kill" does a fair job of doing more than just preaching to the converted about the questionable ethics of drone warfare. Its measured approach may not appeal to all, but it does make the film fairly effective.It takes place in 2010, when the American military's use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the middle east reached its height. Air Force Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) operates one from a base just outside Las Vegas, and it's wearing on him: Though he can go home after spending his day in an air-conditioned trailer, he's distant from his wife Molly (January Jones) and drinks too much. He's asked commanding officer Lt. Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood) to be reassigned to flying real planes, but that's not the way the military is headed. When his partner fails a drug test, Airman First Class Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz) is assigned to the team, and her discomfort with some of their missions only intensifies when they start getting jobs direct from the CIA.
Though Niccol allows the arguments for the use of UAVs their moments, this is an anti-war movie at heart, and like most such films, must wrestle with the basic fact that combat is more easily made exciting on-screen than the various alternatives. Fortunately, he has a good handle on where he wants to go with these scenes, not presenting them as so technical that they become tedious for the audience, but de-emphasizing what might be cool: Everything outside Nevada is clearly a computer screen even when it fills the entire cinema screen, so there are no visual effects shots emphasizing how amazing it is that a missile fired from two miles up can hit a human-sized target. Indeed, the impression given is most often overkill, and any suspense in those scenes generally comes from the worry that something horrible will happen as collateral damage.
The idea there is clear, although procedural enough to not be overly obvious, but Niccol will occasionally play a bit of a heavy hand by having Vera ask if they just committed a war crime or having one of the more gung-ho members of the crew wish for a target to shoot when frustrated. At least he's interesting in his presentation, from having Johns give a fairly ambivalent speech with a U.S. flag as a backdrop to finding the moments when having the camera placed high above a scene will do more to make the audience wonder about Egan's mental state than a "what if it were us" role-reversal. He does a fair job of acknowledging the pragmatic arguments for UAVs even while wondering worrying about what one will find following them one direction or another.
The most interesting arguments along these lines come from Johns's mouth, and as a result Bruce Greenwood winds up with the sort of performance that is really invaluable despite the fact that it likely couldn't have been the lead. He's impressively uncertain while still recognizing the need to be a solid link in the chain of command, able to articulate the "drones save American lives" with the sincerity necessary to make it a point worth considering compared to the obvious potential for abuse. Zoë Kravitz's Vera probably wouldn't work in the lead either, but she delivers a fair level of idealism and resistance to how this job could deaden her soul without just being the untainted anti-war mouthpiece she's sometimes written as. On the other side, Peter Coyote gives a note-perfect other-end-of-the-telephone performance as their CIA overseer.
It leaves Ethan Hawke in the unenviable position of trying to do something with Tommy Egan despite being given a lot of generic situations: Tommy drinks, suspects his wife is having an affair, and wants to return to real combat but hasn't discussed that with Molly. It's a serviceable performance, perhaps ultimately benefiting from how Hawke is generally at his best when he's got a reason for his character to be enthusiastic - not having that with Tommy makes him seem even more miserable, and putting him in a situation uniquely his own might counter that. It's not surprising, then, that some of his most enjoyable scenes come against the young actors playing the Egan kids. His dourness makes a more interesting contrast than expected with January Jones as Molly; she embraces that this woman is naturally a bit self-centered without making her insensitive.In some ways, I think Niccol and company get a little tied up wanting to make a film about a topic rather than a story. The movie is at its rawest when presenting the characters with something horribly but specifically ugly as opposed to just laying out the general ethical issues, and I kind of wonder what it would have been like had that situation been at the center rather than the periphery. "Good Kill" makes its points, but could probably make them in the middle of a more specific story.
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