A war movie about a US drone pilot seems counterintuitive. A joystick and some computer screens in a shipping container–sized office cube outside Las Vegas—it ain’t exactly the stuff of a Hollywood action thriller. But that’s just the setting director Andrew Niccol gives us in his new drama Good Kill, which opened in theaters on Friday.
The film, written and directed by Niccol, follows Maj. Tommy Egan, an Air Force pilot who used to fly fighter planes, played by a convincing Ethan Hawke, at the height of the escalation of the drone war around 2010. Unmanned aerial vehicles, as drones are properly known, are becoming all the rage. War from a safe distance—“We’ve got no skin in the game,” Egan complains at one point—has its obvious appeal, and everyone at the base on the Las Vegas outskirts knows it. Egan’s commanding officer at one point tells a group of new recruits, “Drones aren’t going anywhere. In fact they’re going everywhere.”
The increase in drone attacks coincided with a more active CIA role in the program; in the film, a disembodied voice referred to only as “Langley” calls in strikes and communicates with the drone pilots’ cubicle via speakerphone, making repeated decisions that the “collateral damage”—civilian casualties—is worth it to blow up some “high-value target” or another. And, with the CIA’s more prominent role, civilian casualties do indeed climb. “Splash,” the drone pilots say after each explosion, followed by a less and less enthusiastic echo of “good kill,” giving the film its title.
The falling enthusiasm of some, far from all, of the drone operators gives the movie its tension. Though not a typical war movie—the explosions happen, without any audio, on a screen within a screen—Good Kill does explore what has become a common theme of today’s war films: post-traumatic stress disorder. This, like the civilian casualties, which are ripped right from headlines, is a real phenomenon: A 2013 study found drone pilots are just as likely as pilots in manned aircraft to suffer PTSD.
Hawke’s Tommy Egan drinks more and more heavily, and keeps a sprawling emotional distance from his wife, played by January Jones in a fine performance as the military wife. Jones is happy to have her husband home from long engagements abroad, but discovers slowly that he’s not so pleased to be fighting a war on office hours and returning to suburban life with two kids by evening. Egan stops at the convenience store several times in the film—a trope of PTSD in movies, but given a little extra punch in that the pilot is driving his Mustang home directly from waging war: “I blew up six Taliban in Pakistan today,” he tells the clerk. “Now I’m going home to barbecue.”