Sci-fi futures characterized by complex moral and political architecture have long been writer-director Andrew Niccol’s stock-in-trade. Yet while there’s not a hint of fantasy in “Good Kill,” a smart, quietly pulsating contempo war drama, it could hardly feel more typical of Niccol’s strongest work. To many, after all, drone strikes — the controversial subject of this tense but appropriately tactful ethics study — still feel like something that should be a practical and legal impossibility. Those who haven’t considered its far-reaching implications, meanwhile, will be drawn into consciousness by Niccol’s film, which sees Ethan Hawke’s former U.S. fighter pilot wrestling with the psychological strain of killing by remote control. At once forward-thinking and exhilaratingly of the moment, this heady conversation piece could yield substantial commercial returns with the right marketing and release strategy.
Niccol has, of course, covered this kind of topical dramatic territory before in 2005’s Amnesty Intl.-approved underperformer “Lord of War,” which starred Nicolas Cage as a faintly disguised incarnation of Soviet arms dealer Viktor Bout. “Good Kill,” however, feels closer in tone and texture to the stately speculative fiction of his 1997 debut, “Gattaca,” and not merely because of Hawke’s presence in the lead. The spartan Las Vegas airbase where Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) wages war against the Taliban from the comfort of an air-conditioned cubicle seems, in terms of its bleak function and lab-like appearance, a faintly dystopian creation — one where distant life-and-death calls are made at the touch of a button. The perils of playing God, of course, were also explored in Niccol’s prescient screenplay for “The Truman Show,” with which “Good Kill” shares profound concerns about a growing culture of extreme surveillance that itself goes unmonitored.
Needless to say, however, this particular world is no product of Niccol’s imagination: The apparent future of warfare is in fact, as Bruce Greenwood’s hardened commander likes to bark at awestruck new arrivals, “the fucking here and now.” Pilots are recruited in shopping malls on the strength of their gaming expertise; joysticks are the new artillery. The film opens on the Afghan desert, as caught through a drone’s viewfinder and transmitted to Egan’s monitor. A terrorist target is identified, the missile order is given and, within 10 seconds of Egan hitting the switch 7,000 miles away, a life ends in a silent explosion of dust and rubble. (The title refers to Egan’s regular, near-involuntary verbal reaction to each successful hit.)
Another day’s work done, Egan hops in his sports car and heads home to his military McMansion, where his wife, Molly (January Jones), and two young children await. It’s an existence that theoretically combines the gung-ho ideals of American heroism and the domestic comforts of the American Dream. Niccol forges this connection with one elegantly ironic long shot of Egan’s car leaving the arid middle-of-nowhere surrounds of the control center (which have an aesthetic proximity to the Middle East, if nothing else) and approaching the glistening urban heights of Vegas — hardly the city to anchor this uncanny setup in any greater sense of reality.
For all intents and purposes, Egan, who previously risked life and limb flying F-16 planes in Iraq, has lucked out. It doesn’t feel that way to him, however, as he finds it increasingly impossible to reconcile the immense power he wields from his planeless cockpit with the lack of any attendant peril or consequence on his end. Niccol’s script and Hawke’s stern, buttoned-down performance keep in play the question of whether it’s adrenaline or moral accountability that he misses most in his new vocation, but either way, as new, more ruthless orders come in from the CIA, it’s pushing him to the brink of emotional collapse. Egan finds a measure of solidarity in rookie co-pilot Suarez (a fine, flinty Zoe Kravitz), who challenges authority more brazenly than he does, but can’t explain his internal crisis to his increasingly alienated family.
It’s the peculiar mechanics of drone warfare that enable “Good Kill” to be at once a combat film and a war-at-home film, two familiar strains of military drama given a bracing degree of tension by their parallel placement in Niccol’s tightly worked script: The pressures of Egan’s activity in the virtual field bounce off the volatile battles he fights in the bedroom and vice versa, as the film’s intellectual deliberations over the rights and wrongs of this new military policy are joined by the more emotive question of just what type of man, if any, is mentally fit for the task. (Or, indeed, woman: One thing to be said for the new technology is that it expands the demographic limits of combat.) Rife as it is with heated political questioning, this essentially human story steers clear of overt rhetorical side-taking: The Obama administration comes in for some implicit criticism here, but the film’s perspective on America’s ongoing Middle East presence isn’t one the right is likely to take to heart.
Just as Niccol’s narrative structure is at once fraught and immaculate in its escalation of ideas and character friction, so his arguments remain ever-so-slightly oblique despite the tidiness of their presentation: How much viewers wish to accept the pic as a single, tragic character study or a broader cautionary tale is up to them. He overplays his hand, however, with a needlessly melodramatic subplot that finds Egan growing personally invested in the fate of a female Afghan civilian living on their regular surveillance route, while Greenwood’s character is given one pithy slogan too many (“fly and fry,” “warheads on foreheads”) to underline the detachment of empathy from the act of killing. Happily, such instances of glib overstatement are rare in a film that trusts its audience both to recognize Niccol’s interpretations of current affairs as such, and to arrive at their own without instruction.
It can’t be a coincidence that Hawke’s styling — aviators, snug leather bomber, Ivy League haircut — gives him the appearance of Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” hero Maverick Mitchell gone somewhat to seed. His nuanced, hard-bitten performance, too, bristles with cracked machismo and seething self-disappointment; the actor has had a good run of form recently, though his brittle, closed manner here still surprises. Supporting ensemble work is uniformly strong, with Jones, who has form when it comes to playing the repressed wives of inscrutable men, finally landing a film role worthy of her work in “Mad Men.”
The filmmaking here is as efficient and squared-off as the storytelling, with Amir Mokri’s sturdy lensing capturing the hard, unforgiving light of the Nevada desert, and foregrounding every sharp angle of Guy Barnes’ excellent production design — which makes equally alien spaces of a pod-like military boardroom and the beige, under-loved walls of Egan’s home. Sound work throughout is aces, making a virtue of the sound effects that are eerily absent as those present: In drone warfare, at least in Vegas, no one can hear you scream.