Good Kill (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): His unbearable lightness of following orders

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“Good Kill” wants to be a thought-provoking drama about the disturbing sides of modern warfare technology of our time, but it only keeps spinning its wheels with no sense of direction. While there are a number of darkly absurd scenes which remind us of “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and “Catch-22” (1970), the movie does not have any edge to push itself into ironic satire despite its interesting contrast of backgrounds. Although there are also several serious moments of uneasy moral questions, the movie does not have enough narrative pull to grab us, and we merely watch its burned-out hero going through his unbearable lightness of following orders.

Ethan Hawke, who constantly looks numb or alienated in his most parched performance to date, plays Major Thomas Egan, who is doing his usual duty at an Air Force Base near Las Vegas during the opening sequence. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), Egan and his few colleagues are operating an armed MQ-9 Reaper drone flying above somewhere in Afghanistan, and we watch how their mission is done as they carefully monitor the situation for the precise elimination of their target. Once the target is in the right place, the missile launch is ordered by Johns, and the mission is accomplished just after a little more than 10 seconds.

While his colleagues do not have much problem with working inside one of those high-tech trailers placed in the base, Egan has been frustrated because his military career seems to be reaching the dead end. He works in a more comfortable condition than before, and his wife Molly (January Jones) is content to have her husband near her and their kids in their suburban house, but this changed situation remains to feel alien to his detached state of mind. He misses when he could fly jet fighter, and he still hopes that he will be sent to the front line again someday.

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But, as his boss bitterly tells him during their private conversation, nothing can stop the changes in their military world. Drones are replacing jet fighters day by day, and there are not many positions available to Egan nowadays. Most of new recruits in the base are selected because of their computer game skill rather than flying skill, and I can easily imagine their military job being outsourced if that can ever be possible. After all, all you need is knowing what buttons to push during your operation, isn’t it?

While the daily routine for Egan and his colleagues goes on and on, their drone operations become morally questionable especially after they are ordered to work with CIA. At one point, they bomb a building, and then they are ordered to bomb the site again even though it is possible that not everyone gathering around the site after the first bombing is a potential terrorist. Collateral damage becomes acceptable as their drone operations become more expanded and ruthless, and there is a disturbingly ironic moment when Egan and his colleagues spot a local woman being helplessly abused by some guy while their drone camera looks upon her village from the sky. They cannot ignore this terrible moment, but neither the woman nor the abuser is their target, so there is nothing they can do about that.

Despite such provocative moments like that, the director Andrew Niccol’s screenplay is seldom energized as droning on with its military characters’ repetitive operations. Hawke, who previously collaborated with Niccol in “Gattaca” (1997) and “Lord of War” (2005), is believable in his understated presentation of suffocation and frustration, but there is not much depth in his agonizing character who seems to have been drained of his spirit for years, and it is difficult for us to care about him as the movie keeps the clinical distance between its aloof hero and us.

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In case of Egan’s relationship with his wife, its depiction is sketchy at best except keeping reminding us of how much they are estranged from each other, and January Jones, who is still trying to find her next solid career step after TV series “Mad Men”, is wasted in her thankless role. At least, she and Hawke have a good scene together when Egan tries to open himself more to his wife, and this calm but unnerving scene shows us how much their performances could be enhanced if they were served by a better screenplay.

Like Hawke and Jones, the other actors in the film try their best with their underdeveloped characters. Zoë Kravitz is a female soldier who gradually becomes conflicted about her missions just like her senior, and Bruce Greenwood has a couple of nice scenes where his character shows his practical balance between cynicism and common sense as the leader of his unit. He does not like what is going on around him, but he follows orders anyway as a dutiful soldier, while often reminding his soldiers of the human cost of what they do everyday.

As shown from his debut work “Gattaca” and many of his following works, Niccol has steadily shown his interest on the relationship between technology and humanity. While “Gattaca” has been more relevant as biotechnology keeps rapidly advancing, his screenplay for “The Truman Show” (1998) predicted the rise of reality TV shows in advance, and “Lord of War” pungently points out that virulent global cycle between human war and arms dealing. “Good Kill” is not as memorable as these smart works, but its few good moments may make you reflect on the brave new war emerging in our time.

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