Drama Film Review

'Good Kill' Film Review: A potent examination of the toll of duty in the age of modern warfare

May 15, 2015Ben MK

"Don't ask me if this is a just war. It's just war."

Somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert, the men and women of the U.S. Air Force's 61st Attack Squadron suit up daily and venture deep into enemy territory, flying missions over Afghanistan, Africa, or wherever there's a war to be fought — all from the comfort of an air-conditioned cubicle, thanks to state-of-the-art drone technology. It's an opportunity some new recruits would kill for. But for Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), the ability to pull the trigger from 7,000 miles up in the sky raises serious ethical questions about the value of human life — and what it means to take one away.

Grounded in the reality of America's War on Terror, Good Kill was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, best known for films like Gattaca and Lord of War. And like those two films, the movie is a thriller that revolves around the ethical considerations and moral ambiguities surrounding the topic at hand — in this case, drone warfare.

When we first meet Hawke's character, he doesn't give much more than a second thought to his duties as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) pilot, other than the fact that it makes him long for his days in the cockpit of an F-16. But that all changes once he, his new co-pilot, Vera Suarez (Zoƫ Kravitz), and the rest of their four-man outfit begin helming covert missions for the C.I.A. Suddenly, instead of eliminating known terrorist threats, their directives become exclusively about proactively "prosecuting" targets who've yet to commit any real crime. And soon, the black-and-white line separating them from their enemies begins to dissolve into the moral grey.

Playing a man not only burdened by the guilt of his actions on the battlefield but also strained by growing tensions on the homefront (with wife January Jones), Hawke delivers an intensely stoic, at times emotionally-charged performance. Viewed as a character study, it's comparable to Bradley Cooper's turn as real-life sniper Chris Kyle in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. Yet, Good Kill is more than just a story about one man, or about the broader suffering that plagues soldiers with PTSD.

The film may be set in 2010, but the questions it raises remain just as topical today — if not more so. Drone strikes have become the irrefutable weapon-of-choice in the United States' current war against terrorism, and the debate swirling around them — particularly about the seldom-disclosed human collateral — shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Putting moviegoers in the combat boots of the drone operators themselves makes the potential for innocent casualties even more disturbing. For if this is the latest evolution of 21st-century warfare, can we truly say that the end justifies the means? Or is the price of war simply too high to accept?

Good Kill releases May 15th, 2015 from Remstar Films. The film has an MPAA rating of R for violent content including a rape, language, and some sexuality. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 42 Mins.

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 10th, 2014.

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