The battlefield in Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill is within the soul of Major Thomas Egan (a drawn and dead-eyed Ethan Hawke), a former fighter pilot who now spends his days in a metal box on a military base outside Las Vegas, piloting drones and taking out Middle East targets. Of course, Egan would rather that the battlefield were out there, wherever he and his plane were needed to engage the enemy. But that kind of war isn’t necessary now, or even possible, and that’s his problem. The daily deadly desk-jockey routine of killing Taliban and then going home to barbecue has left him with one foot in each world and no heart for either. Alcohol helps but not really, and his wife (January Jones) is getting sick of the silent treatment (to say nothing of the lackluster sex). His gruff, low-key CO (Bruce Greenwood) sympathizes, up to a point. There’s still work to be done, even the kind of morally murky work demanded by remote CIA bosses who order kills over the phone like pizza. “Extra missiles, please.”
The combination of the daily grind and morally questionable killing provides a promising setup, and Niccol’s eye is still true: he makes great use of Vegas’s empty deserts and movie-set surreality, as well as the surreal, earthbound cockpit of a craft that’s 10,000 feet up and half a world away. (The space feels like the interior of a submarine; the cramped antithesis of flight’s airy freedom.) And Hawke does barely numbed misery tolerably well. The problem is with the talking: the CO has to make speeches — that’s his job, and he does it well — but does that mean the soldiers have to sound off, too? (“Since when did we become Hamas?” “We’re saving American lives!”) There are Issues to be discussed! During a military strike! Because otherwise, how will the audience know how to feel? It’s a pity: if Niccol had let things play out through his star and left the quips and colloquies on the cutting room floor, he might have made something with the moral power of his early work (unless I’m misremembering The Truman Show and Gattaca). As it is, the audience seems likely to leave feeling scolded or pandered to, depending. Not a great time.