Good Kill is an OK movie starring Ethan Hawke and directed by New Zealander Andrew Niccol, who also directed Hawke in Gattaca, the dumbest anti-eugenics movie ever made (beautiful but dumb). Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, an Air Force pilot assigned to pilot drones in the “war on terror.” (Can we have the word “terrorism” back now that George W. Bush is no longer around to mangle it?)
Instead of living in a war zone, where his life is constantly at risk, Hawke lives with his hot wife (January Jones, a.k.a., Betty Draper) and two beautiful children in a subdivision in Las Vegas. Instead of taking off and landing on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier, he commutes to work in a sports car. His office is a trailer on a military base where he is part of a team of five who carry out drone strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen for the Air Force and the CIA.
Apparently these drones fly at 10,000 feet and cannot be seen from the ground by the naked eye. They have cameras with sufficient resolution to allow operators to recognize people on the ground. They carry multiple Hellfire missiles that can obliterate a building, a convoy, or a group of people 8 to 10 seconds after launch.
The movie’s recreation of drone warfare may or may not be accurate, but it is certainly dramatic and emotionally compelling. It is terrifying that people on the other side of the planet can stalk you with eyes in the sky and in seconds obliterate you and your family and your neighbors and anyone who might rush to the rescue.
The two most disturbing strikes were under CIA command. In the first, the drone crew blows up someone they are told is an enemy commander along with his house and family. Then, when neighbors rush to the smoldering ruins to render aid, they are blown up with a second missile. (They use the Mafia term, a “double tap.”)
In the second strike, a house and family are blown up, but instead of blowing up the rescuers, the drone crew watches as neighbors piece together seven dead bodies, and then, at their funeral the next day, they are blown up again along with their extended family who have come to see them off.
Frankly, I wish Saddam Hussein had such technology in 2001 and used it to pick off the Wurmsers, Feiths, Perles, Krauthammers, and Kristols who brought untold death and misery to Americans and Iraqis alike. But Saddam was clueless about the real enemy and probably would have blown it.
The movie dutifully rehearses the arguments for and against the use of drones. Jack Johns, the Lieutenant Colonel in charge, argues that drones are cheaper in terms of American dollars and lives and more discriminating about targets (and thus less destructive) than conventional warfare.
The token female non-white, Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz — who is half Jewish and about half black) offers the standard liberal talking points: the use of drones constitutes “war crimes”; it is indistinguishable from terrorism; it is a recruitment tool for terrorists. This is all true, but it is even more true of conventional warfare.
First of all, we need to separate the case offered for the particular wars we are fighting in the Muslim world from the case for drone technology in general. We don’t need to be fighting in Afghanistan and Yemen. We just need to cut our special friend Israel loose. (After sending her 6 million Jewish-American reinforcements.)
But in themselves, drones strike me as a good weapon. The drone crews agonize about collateral damage more than old-fashioned bomber crews, simply because, although they do less damage, they see it better. But if they can see it better, they can also avoid it better. No matter how terrible drone strikes are, do they really compare with the indiscriminate terror bombing of Dresden and Hamburg or Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Viewed dispassionately, drones represent moral progress in warfare.
Ethan Hawke’s character just doesn’t think drones are sporting. He thinks of warfare as a duel, and if the enemy can’t kill you back, there is something wrong with it. He wants to risk shedding his blood, and the only Purple Heart he can win in his trailer is for carpal tunnel syndrome. But of course, warfare is not a duel. We do not seek to equalize our risks and weapons, but to gain every possible advantage. But all of that is “cheating” if war is subjected to the rules of dueling.
Hawke’s crisis of conscience is supposed to seem honorable and manly, but it strikes me as weak and self-indulgent. Unable to put his family through hell with long absences in war zones, he puts them through hell in other ways: by developing a cartoonishly excessive drinking problem, having spats with the missus, and flirting implausibly with the ugly Zoë Kravitz character. Frankly, the weakest part of the film is Hawke’s character, his crackup, and his redemption at the end. And given that he is the central character of the film, I can’t really recommend Good Kill, despite the fact that it is very well-made. Like Gattaca, Good Kill is beautiful but dumb — and not nearly as entertaining.