Good Kill: Top Gun this ain’t, folks.
Good Kill *
The battlefield in Andrew Niccol's (Gattaca, The Truman Show) latest 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. 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. His gruff, low-key CO (Bruce Greenwood) sympathizes, but 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. Niccol's eye is still true — he makes great use of Vegas's empty deserts — but the problem in 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?
Besides his recent role as a wealthy developer on TV’s Mad Men, Bruce Greenwood may be most familiar as the fatherly Captain Pike in J.J. Abrams’ s Star Trek reboots. In Good Kill, he plays Lt. Colonel Jack Johns, a sterner, less paternal senior officer: the commander of a squad of drone operators. He’s concerned for his soldiers — especially pilot/gunner Thomas Egan — but the mission is what matters most.
Matthew Lickona: There are a lot of classic roles of this kind. I was wondering if you had any of them in mind as you prepared, if you pitched yourself against any of them.
Bruce Greenwood: No. When I was preparing, I went online and listened to some speeches that had been given by some Air Force generals. The speech that I found most compelling was an hour-long talk given in front of some cadets about respect for the fallen, and what we’re here to do, and how contradictory it is morally sometimes. This general was so articulate and so — measured isn’t quite the right word, but he was so conversational. I was much more affected by that than by any hoo-rah stuff.
ML: That comes through in the performance. I don’t think you ever raise your voice in the film. And that actually provides a big part of the feeling of the movie. Do you work on pitching how you sound for a role?
BG: I think I do, but for the most part, I do it unconsciously. Johns was so beautifully written by Andrew that the more I swallowed his lyric, the more it sort of demanded I do it a certain way. Johns develops this tremendous ambivalence about what he’s being asked to do.
ML: Right. I’m thinking here of his conversations with the CIA handlers at Langley. It seems clear that he’s not about to disobey their orders, but...
BG: But he’s not about to let them go unchallenged, or at least unacknowledged. Because he’s being asked to do things that are beyond his expectations. Also, he’s a military man whose authority has been, if not co-opted, at least shifted to Langley and the lawyers and bean-counters. For a military man, that’s something very difficult to swallow.
ML: Eventually, Johns does give a speech to the team where he reconciles himself — and tries to reconcile them — to Langley’s policies. Did you have to try to sell yourself on that speech in order to make it?
BG: The way I looked at that was, what was the purpose of that speech for Johns himself? Was it to re-energize his troops so that they would do what they had to, in spite of the way he really feels? Or was it the truth? I tried to do it in such a way that it appears to be the way he really feels, but then, upon reflection, you have to ask yourself, “I wonder if he said that for effect?” That’s what I was aiming for. I don’t know whether Andrew was intending for that to be absolute on the part of Johns, but...
ML: Can you talk about how he went about directing a scene like that? How you worked with him?
Good Kill Official Trailer
BG: I shouldn’t say I didn’t know what his intentions were. I think his intention was to have Johns’s speech be sincere. But I didn’t invite him into my thought process about what I thought about Johns’s level of sincerity. That may have been just my personal way to avoid taking the stance that Johns takes, to make it ambiguous in my own mind. It may not be ambiguous to the viewer at all. As for directing, Andrew is really clear about what he wants, even about cadence. We had a couple of fun conversations where he’d say, “You’re not leaning on the operative word I want here.” And I would say, “I want to lean on a more obscure operative word.” And he would say, “Well, don’t.” And I would say, “Okay, fine. You wrote it. That’s your prerogative.” But there was never anything but respect.
ML: How did you conceive of your relationship with Egan?
BG: They’re men that share a period, even if they’re half a generation apart. I think Johns is loath to let his last link to a time that he remembers disappear. He wants a guy around whose experiences mirror his own. So he presses Egan to carry on, to Egan’s complete and utter disillusionment. I think Johns is, at a certain level, unwilling to see the stress that Egan is under because he doesn’t want to admit that Egan should be relieved before he does something for which he can’t be forgiven.
ML: Watching this, I thought to myself, Remember the days when people might see a movie that actually changed the way they thought about things? I was wondering, has that ever happened to you?
BG: Dead Man Walking with Sean Penn as the death-row convict and Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean. The credits started to roll at the end, and the theater was still dark, and I was a wreck. It crushed me. My wife was uplifted by Sister Prejean’s love and her ability to forgive. But for me, it was that man is dark in his soul, and there is no redemption. It hit me that it was all pointless, and there was nothing in our future but horror and misinformation, and no reconciliation. It brutalized me. I just sat there heaving. My wife looked over at me and said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I don’t even know how to describe it to you. It’s too ugly.”