‘Good Kill,’ Bad Movie
Ethan Hawke and director Andrew Niccol talk to FP about their new movie on drones. Too bad it gets so much wrong.
If you’ve paid even tangential attention to the debate over the role of drones in the United States’ wars of the 21st century, director Andrew Niccol’s new movie “Good Kill” will have virtually nothing new to tell you. If you haven’t, read any of these informative articles to catch up and spare yourself 102 minutes of hackneyed dialogue and factual inaccuracy.
Set in 2010, the movie stars Ethan Hawke as Maj. Thomas Egan, a pilot forced to abandon his F-16 to fly drones. After experiencing warfare from his cockpit while flying above the battlefield, the abrupt shift to a metal box at an Air Force base outside Las Vegas threatens Egan’s sense of self. He becomes increasingly distanced from his wife and reliant on booze as a result.
Niccol and Hawke clearly wanted to make a movie that prompts a national conversation about a future of warfare by remote control. “The [U.S.] soldiers might eventually leave Afghanistan, but the drones aren’t going to,” Niccol told my Foreign Policy colleague Seyward Darby in an interview.
“The things that usually end a war are expense, body bags or conquering a country,” Hawke said in the same interview. “With a drone, it’s inexpensive, there aren’t body bags, and you can’t conquer the country because you aren’t even there. So it creates a real possibility for perpetual war.”
These are pertinent observations, but Niccol’s effort to bring them to life in the film is handicapped by his own screenplay, which is weighted down with so many cliches that it becomes hard to take seriously. Several of these involve Egan’s character, who misses the risks that came with spending his professional life in the air. “The most dangerous thing I do is drive home on the freeway,” he laments in one scene.
Buried in the movie are a few plot twists that are plucked from the headlines and, in different hands, might actually incite a genuine debate among the film’s audience: a drone strike that Egan and his team intentionally conduct on the funeral of the target of a previous drone attack, and repeated strikes conducted in which it’s clear to Egan’s team ahead of time that civilians will die.
But instead of making a movie that revolves around one such episode, Niccol has tried to cram every remotely controversial type of incident associated with drones into one film, the moral core of which is provided by Egan and a young enlisted female airman. The rest of the team consists of a pair of junior officers that are little more than two-dimensional characters whose purpose in the film is simply to provide hard line answers to the junior airman’s questions about the dubious morality of some of the drone strikes.
But at least their characters get to be two-dimensional. Some of the most disturbing strikes are undertaken on behalf of the CIA. But perhaps because Niccol wanted to keep the movie tightly focused on the handful of Air Force personnel in Nevada, the CIA is represented only by a disembodied voice coming out of a speaker. Rather than purely mission-focused conversations about the targets to be prosecuted, the discussions between the team and “Langley” veer into philosophical discussions on the nature of drone warfare that are completely unrealistic in the context of a time-sensitive lethal mission.
To a reporter who has spent more than 25 years covering the military, those scenes are far from the most egregious departures from realism that the movie makes. Egan’s commander, Lt. Col. Jack Johns (whose character exists largely to deliver stilted exposition on the background of the drone war), is played by Bruce Greenwood, who at 58 is (and looks) about 15 years too old to be playing a lieutenant colonel. A small infantry or special operations element asks the drone crew to provide overwatch while they take a nap in the middle of a long patrol, but none of the ground-pounders appears to be even carrying a rucksack. The most jarring error comes when Egan speaks wistfully of the challenges of landing his F-16 on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier. F-16s are Air Force jets that don’t land on Navy carriers.
The critical role played by drones in the wars of the post-9/11 era demands to be examined by a worthwhile movie. “Good Kill” isn’t it.
Below is the full text of the interview conducted by Seyward Darby with Ethan Hawke and Andrew Niccol:
SD: It strikes me that so many of your movies are about the impact technology can have on our humanity — Gattaca, In Time, The Truman Show. I’m curious why this story of technology in particular drew you in, and what made you want to make this movie.
AN: Because of his character — because we’ve never had a soldier like this before. He’s the first generation of what will be many generations of soldiers who will go to war at home. It’s fascinating: What does that do to the psyche, what toll does it take when you’re going to war with a country but never go to the country? How do you possibly decompress when you’ve got a 40-minute drive down the freeway to your home in the Vegas suburbs?
SD: You met with some drone operators in preparation for this movie. What did you find were their methods of coping, of thinking about doing a job that is at once at home but also far away?
EH: It’s almost a schizophrenic level of detachment. They would never say that, they have their own things they say that they think are funny — the way they process their feelings or try to swallow their feelings, of whatever it is that they do. For me, as an actor, someone who’s often asked to compartmentalize feelings, asked to work with them on film one hour then later be normal at lunch of taking my kids of school, I understand that feeling of compartmentalization or schizophrenia. And I don’t know how they handled it. But I know it’s a dangerous thing to do, to become so detached from your feelings.
AN: Some of the younger drone pilots would fly by remote control for hours, then go back to their apartment and play video games. How do you not get desensitized to what you’re doing when you’re looking at screens?
SD: Did you find that they knew or had studied much about the cultures they were surveilling—that they knew a lot about, say, Yemen or Pakistan?
EH: In my experience, yeah.
AN: As you see in the film, they spend sometimes months watching a compound. And they really start to identify with the people they’re watching. They know their routine.
EH: They have likes and dislikes: “Oh, he’s cool,” or, “Oh, I hate him,” or “Oh, she’s attractive.”
AN: His character is watching a woman working, caring for a kid, and he almost falls in love with her. He spends more time with her than he does with his wife.
EH: And then the husband comes home and you have to blow them all up.
SD: In that respect, you could make the argument that this form of warfare has brought soldiers closer to the people they’re targeting. They’re not looking at them across tanks or battle lines.
AN: Perhaps that makes it worse. Because they’re not these anonymous people anymore.
EH: My grandfather dropped bombs on Germany, but he never had to circle back and count the dead. He never knew what happened to the bombs he let out of that B-52. Did he feel guilt about it? Really, no — you could say, maybe we blew up that bomb plant and saved the war.
AN: But to know exactly whom you’ve killed, and what you’ve done to them, how you blew them apart. We’ve never asked soldiers to watch what they do in hi-def. On the battlefield, I’m going to shoot you, but I’m not going to stick around because I’m worried about getting shot. That threat doesn’t exist [with drones]. It makes you feel cowardly, because you’re not a warrior anymore.
SD: That raises the question of whether the United States should be doing this at all. Having made this film, what do you think?
AN: It’s not up to me to answer that, it’s up to the audience who sees it. But it’s really a complicated question because you have to ask, doing what exactly? The soldiers might eventually leave Afghanistan, but the drones aren’t going to. Many would argue perhaps validly they should stay and police it, because do we want another 9/11? Is that the risk if we declare victory and go home?
EH: There’s a line in the film, that it might be the least worst option. If we stop killing them, will they stop killing us? The really dangerous thing about the drone program is where it’s leading us into the future. It’s obviously a very useful tool — but it’s how we use it. The things that usually ends a war are expense, body bags, or conquering a country. With a drone, it’s inexpensive, there aren’t body bags, and you can’t conquer the country because you aren’t even there. So it creates a real possibility for perpetual war. We used to think of that as a futuristic idea. Now here we are, 14 years into this, and it’s not so far-fetched.
SD: In speaking to the drone operators, where was their mentality with regard to the program? Did they articulate concerns about, say, when their job would end?
AN: One phrase that really stuck in my mind was this drone pilot who said, “When the commander says to fire, to press the button, once they say fire, they bought the bomb. So even if a kid runs into the impact zone, that’s not my responsibility. My job was to press the button.” So that is how they could compartmentalize that aspect of it.
EH: When you talk to the soldiers, they’re so consumed with the details. They would say, “I never really felt bad about what I did, but there was so much paperwork, endless paper work the military makes you do.”
AN: When you asked that guy about video games….
EH: He said, “It’s exactly like a video game if it was the most boring video game in the world.” When you only get to press the fire button about once a year.
AN: To them it’s long moments of boredom, punctuated by moments of horror.
SD: In the movie, the CIA is a detached voice on a telephone, talking to the pilots. In speaking to soldiers who presumably came up through the military, how did they feel about taking orders from the CIA?
EH: Thy wouldn’t say that word, those three letters.
AN: When I asked the drone operators, “You guys flew missions for the CIA?” They would say, “We can’t talk about that.” It’s well documented that the CIA contracts out the Air Force to fly for them, because they can’t fly. These guys would just call them OGA: “other goverment agency.”
SD: I read that you think some of your best sources for the movie were Wikileaks and the Chelsea Manning leaks. What interaction if any did you have with the government in producing the movie — or is coming to D.C. your first real contact?
AN: Yeah, I’m curious how the Q&A will go tonight [after the movie screening]. The script was submitted to the Department of Defense, but I didn’t get any official military cooperation.
SD: Having made this movie, when you read a news story like that of Warren Weinstein, a U.S. hostage recently killed by a drone strike, do you see it differently?
EH: You know, I’ve played police officers, Interpol agents, CIA agents, done enough research that the news doesn’t surprise me. The public is always way behind on what info they’re getting and how they’re getting it. Normal audience members think this movie is almost science fiction, but this is a period piece, set five years ago — this is no longer cutting edge.
SD: That leads me to ask about public opinion. Polling agencies only started asking questions about drones a few years ago.
EH: But they’re polling people who have such little information. If the average person is half as ignorant as I am on these subjects, I don’t think most people have enough information to even ask the right question, much less give an opinion that matters.
AN: The thing is that it’s a very easy sale to the public. As soon as you say, “The troops are out.”
EH: And, “We’re going to get those ISIS guys!” Why wouldn’t that sound great?
AN: But then you have no idea what’s happening to the targeted, or to the targeters.
EH: We also have no idea what precedent we’re setting. We [the United States] are some of the only people who have this weapon. How are you going to feel when every first-world country is covering the globe with drones? Your opinion on whether that’s OK or not is going to change. We [Americans] have a kind of leadership role to play here as well.
SD: Your movie is one of the first films about this program. It might reach a wide audience and give people more information. But do you think the government too should be pulling the program more out of shadows — telling the public more about it?
AN: Well I’m a filmmaker….
SD: But your opinion matters.
EH: The public in general, when faced with really looking at violence, even the toughest talkers, when they see pictures of dead children and women with arms blown off, immediately start asking, “Wasn’t there another way?” That’s what ended the Vietnam War.
AN: There’s talk about making the program more transparent. But there is a video record of every single drone strike, because that’s how it’s done — with video. I’m curious why the public doesn’t see more. Why do I only see this on Wikileaks? The war with ISIS is interesting. If there wasn’t video of the beheadings, I’m not sure we would be at war. Maybe that’s why we don’t see drone strikes, because the video is so powerful.
SD: When you were doing research, did you speak to victims’ groups, people who’ve lost loved ones to drones elsewhere in the world?
AN: No, but I was really touched when I was reading about drones, about kids who grow up hating blue skies. That’s why I include it [the idea] in the film. It’s a fundamental change to humanity, that a kid would wake up and say, “It’s a beautiful day, it’s a gray sky,” which is not ideal conditions for a drone. That’s where you run the risk that the war on terror is causing terror.
SD: Coming at the end of a day of interviews, have you been surprised about questions asked here in D.C., a government town, as opposed to elsewhere?
EH: People are so informed. It’s a much more interesting dialogue. We showed it at Toronto and Venice [film festivals]. While the criticism for the movie was good, I found that most people seemed terrified to talk about it. They seemed scared of coming off as anti-nationalistic or anti-military, of being critical. And you can’t have a dialogue if you aren’t critical. But people just don’t have enough information. They aren’t scared to talk about it — they’re scared of looking stupid, of being wrong about such serious subject matter.
AN: We just hope people don’t forget about this movie by the time they get to the parking lot.