Written and directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), Good Kill is a lean, single-focus, quietly angry film about grounded former F-16 jet flyboy Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), newly assigned to Vegas. Just outside the city limits, he and fellow crew members report daily to middle-of-nowhere Mojave Desert steel containers where they watch computer consoles and push buttons that release fleets of drones to kill men, women, and children in Afghanistan. They may as well be playing Call of Duty. The “good kill” is one where the air strike hits its human and structural target while they sleep, sweep streets, visit friends and when no one — except the survivors, mourners, and militants — is the wiser. Egan and his fellow soldiers feel so far removed from boots on the ground that it’s as if they’re untouched, almost godlike: “I blew away six Taliban and now I am going home to barbecue,” says Hawke’s character.
Eventually, the efforts of our hero, his ramrod, aye-aye-sir colonel (Bruce Greenwood), and his fellow team members — a few of them cocky, unquestioning, blissfully misinformed jocks straight out of Top Gun — get subcontracted and controlled by the CIA (we hear only the voice of Peter Coyote on speaker phone). That’s when their missions become even more abstract and, if possible, even less defensible. Welcome to the brave new world in which so-called war on terror, as one character puts it, “is now a first-person shooter.”
These scenes have a raw, cold efficiency and ruthlessness that is searing and breathtaking. Unfortunately, Good Kill is on much stronger ground when it questions the U.S. military’s increasing reliance on drone warfare than when it explores Tom Egan’s dehumanization and eventual unraveling, well-played by Ethan Hawke, and the disintegration of his unhappy relationship with his wife Molly, played by January Jones, who is also good in a thankless role somewhat analogous to Sienna Miller’s in American Sniper. Good Kill is smart and provocative when it examines the bizarre-o world of drone warfare and the intersection of violence and gamesmanship. Unfortunately, it’s much less good at exploring what drone warfare does to the men and women who practice it daily, let alone when it ducks the notion of what a “good war” actually looks like in 2015. **½