In ‘Good Kill,’ director Andrew Niccol reveals a drone pilot’s anguish

22 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Director Andrew Niccol explores isolation ….

Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a pilot with a desk job. In the opening scene of Patton (1970), the film’s namesake addresses a sea of troops about to be hurled onto World War II’s front lines in Europe and North Africa.The technology of martial arts in the West has long aimed to increase the distance between attacker and target — from arrows to bullets to gravity bombs.“Good Kill” is a very modern war movie, which means that it’s about a guy in a room in the American Southwest who pushes a button and kills a group of people somewhere in Central Asia.

A movie review of “Good Kill”: Ethan Hawke plays an Air Force drone pilot who slowly descends into existential despair as he fights a war that technology has made both distant and intimate. Hold them up, in all their mind-bending glory, and you might feel a pang of nostalgia for a bygone era when studios bankrolled movies made for adults who like their entertainment with a side of smarts — and not the wise-cracking one-liner kind. Only this time it’s with drones. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “the aircraft you’re looking at behind me is not the future of war; it is the here-and-f**king-now.” The movie, written and directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War), provides a harrowing look at warfare’s newest frontier through the eyes of a fictional drone pilot.

Along with Academy Award winners Kathryn Bigelow and Clint Eastwood, Andrew Niccol has joined the ranks of major filmmakers asking American audiences to think about the ongoing war and the soldiers fighting it, specifically, in the case of “Good Kill,” about the use of drones, aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), in modern warfare, even if it’s in the context of a deeply flawed film. You and I have read about drone warfare a lot and hopefully have given it some thought, anguished or otherwise, but writer-director Andrew Niccol wants you to feel in your bones what it is to watch live footage of men and women on the other side of the planet and obliterate them with a twitch of a joystick. Never before have warriors been able to closely watch their enemies for long periods from thousands of miles away, watch them unobserved from high-flying unmanned missile-carrying aircraft.

Writer/director Niccol (“Gattaca”), revisiting some of the themes of his 2005 arms-dealer drama “Lord of War,” presents a quandary here in the form of morally conflicted Maj. No, it doesn’t feel very good, especially when you factor in the collateral damage: noncombatants blown to pieces, further injury to America’s international standing, the slow erosion of the soul in those pushing the buttons. “Good Kill” is by necessity a grim piece of work, one that fields a powerful and unexpectedly terse performance from Ethan Hawke while stumbling over plot developments that seem increasingly forced. And then, on command, kill them with the push of a button on a joystick. ‘Good Kill,’ with Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Bruce Greenwood, Zoë Kravitz. He’s a father, husband, pilot and combat veteran with all the right stuff who, after three tours of duty in a fighter jet in Iraq and Afghanistan, finds himself inside an air-conditioned metal container in the mercilessly brutal Las Vegas sun, killing people 7,000 miles away with hellfire missiles fired from remotely operated drones. And then, after his shift, he trudges back to his home in Las Vegas, where his wife (January Jones), children and the challenges of domestic life await him.

The contortions needed to make that kind of compartmentalization work are nearly impossible for a man like Egan, a veteran of six tours, a pilot who misses the fear of combat and, yes, flying an actual plane — an idea that Niccol, showing F-16s gathering dust on the base, implies is almost ludicrous. Egan who must be content operating what amounts to a high-stakes video game. “What kind of toll does it have on a soldier who is fighting the Taliban for 12 hours by remote control and [then] go pick up his kids from soccer?” said Mr.

The problem is that he’s exceptionally good at what he does, stalking enemy insurgents from his eyes in the sky and dispatching them with precisely aimed missiles. He wants to get back in a real airplane — a common experience for these pilots, Niccol says. “He is grieving for the loss of flying,” he says. “Many of the actual pilots, they’re told ‘do a tour in these UAVs and we’ll get you back in the cockpit,’ but they’re never going back.

From World War II to contemporary conflicts, war films often highlight the humanity of soldiers, helping to connect civilians in the audience to the people and wars they once understood only in the abstract. Though Egan is a man of few words (he becomes even quieter when he’s angry, his wife tells a friend), the movie makes up for his reserve by explaining and informing to a fault. Tommy doesn’t go for Johns’s cynicism or the gung-ho rationalizations of fellow pilot Zimmer (Jake Abel), or the tight-lipped horror of new recruit Suarez (Zoe Kravitz).

They’re making far more drones than jets.” Moreover, civilians and “real” soldiers — those whose boots are on the ground — have little sympathy for the guy whose commute is the most dangerous part of his day. “No one is throwing a pity party for [UAV pilots], even though they may be suffering,” Niccol says. “You’re seeing far more, because you’re dropping munitions, then watching what happens, then counting the dead. You will possess a clearer understanding of the ins and outs, the pros and cons of drone warfare after viewing “Good Kill,” but the arguments sometimes feel like talking points awkwardly wedged into the action. When he presses a button to send a bomb plummeting onto an insurgent in Yemen, there’s no sound, just silence accompanying an image of a dusty blast. “Splash,” the drone pilots say. “Good kill.” Hawke recently came to D.C. to promote the film.

But you can’t tell people about it because they think, ‘You’re not in any danger.’ How can you possibly justify complaining?” Even though drone warfare is a political hot button, that element didn’t interest Niccol, an Oscar nominee for his script for 1998’s “The Truman Show.” “Whether people think they’re in favor or opposed to the drone program, they should know what it’s doing to the targeted and the targeters,” he says. “I come at it hopefully from a humanitarian point of view. Newsweek approached a former drone operator, Brandon Bryant, to gauge how realistic the movie’s portrayal is and discovered that, in August 2013, early on in Good Kill’s production, he was contacted by a producer, who asked for his insights. Where Niccol (“Gattaca”) succeeds is in creating an atmosphere of self-loathing, both for those manning the drones and the audience watching them work. Midway through the movie, the CIA takes over command of the missions, ordering a series of killings that are debatable on moral and strategic grounds. (“Permission to prosecute” is the dispassionate order coming from Langley in a voice that feels modeled on HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Niccol conveys this chilling disconnect, showing how the ease of their actions absolves the participants of responsibility and robs them of their humanity. Hawke said the ethos of the modern warrior has been turned upside down, requiring someone like his character to risk little while inflicting maximum damage on the enemy without ever seeing the battlefield. “Normally [when] you risk your own [life], you have the courage of your own convictions,” Mr.

As a filmmaker, Niccol has a gift for visualizing uncomfortable futures (“Gattaca,” “In Time”) and presents (“Lord of War”) while overthinking his stories until the air gets pressed out of them. The front line, from the suburb where he lives, is just a freeway drive away. “I blew away six Taliban in Pakistan earlier today, now I’m going home to barbecue,” Egan tells a clerk in a Vegas liquor store. Hawke said, “so there’s huge self-respect there” that is missing in the world of the remote-control drone pilot. “We have always tried to distance ourselves from the enemy,” Mr. The screws tightening on the hero are relentless: an increasingly unsympathetic wife (January Jones, of “Mad Men”) who may be stepping out on him, pressures from the brass, the day-in-day-out grind of his deadly surveillance.

But once he did, he saw some parallels to that reality and everyone else’s. “It’s not a huge jump from what’s happening to these pilots to what’s happening to all of us,” he said. “More and more of our intimacy, what used to feel real and tangible, is now automated, is now from a distance. This is nothing new to Hollywood insiders, who are used to the slow pace and false starts of independent filmmaking, but Bryant thinks the “snubbing”, as he refers to it, was because of a disagreement regarding one element in the script. An actor with the gift of gab (most notably in his collaborations with Richard Linklater), Hawke here delivers a nuanced turn as a man on the threshold of emotional ruin. If Tommy’s a god, he’s an impotent one: In a particularly harrowing scene, he and Suarez look down from the skies as an Afghani man beats and rapes his wife in a courtyard.

He points out that a recent real-life attempt by the armed forces to reward soldiers for their virtuosity with drones led to backlash from those who serve in the field. When the CIA, represented by a disembodied voice on speaker phone (Peter Coyote, chillingly implacable), takes over target selection from the military and starts ordering so-called “signature strikes” — which don’t attack specific individuals but rather groups of people that anonymous analysts deem to be acting in a suspicious manner — Egan descends into an existential crisis. After several months of testing and training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Bryant was assigned to a windowless bunker on the periphery of Las Vegas, just like Hawke’s character in Good Kill. Egan and his colleagues engineer drone strikes from inside a trailer at their Nevada base at the behest of the disembodied voice of a CIA operator (Peter Coyote), who directs their actions via phone from headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Niccol’s script is trenchant and insightful, and his visuals, paralleling the dusty rough terrain of Afghanistan with the dessicated Nevada landscape in the midst of which Egan’s suburb is located, are powerful visual signifiers of the psychological wasteland in which the character finds himself. And that also struck a chord for Hawke. “I know actors that end up spending seven years and making a fortune on some TV show where they say one line a week,” he said. “These are people that went to Yale drama, and they’re miserable because they’re atrophying.” Thanks to some combination of luck, talent and good decision making skills, Hawke has avoided that path. His last few years have launched him into Serious Actor territory, thanks to his work with another frequent collaborator, Richard Linklater, who wrote and directed the buzzy Oscar-nominated “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy. But like Bigelow and Eastwood, Niccol asks us to consider what toll the endless violence, however righteous or unrighteous, takes on the hearts and minds of the soldiers.

Three men with rifles were walking along a road somewhere in Afghanistan; the two in front looked as if they were having an argument, while the third wandered a little behind them. Egan, being a pilot, would rather fly into the danger zone to unleash his payload himself. “But now you drop your munitions and sit and watch [a monitor] And that’s a game. The low-budget horror movie “The Purge” was a massive box office hit in 2013, and this year’s “Predestination” is the kind of twisting and turning sci-fi riddle that leaves you pondering the plot for days. (Hawke tells a funny story about a Brooklyn cop who stopped the actor on the street and demanded: “what the hell happened?”) Hawke’s strength is dramatic acting, and that job is disappearing as quickly as the military pilot population. You’re watching in high-def whom you’ve just blown apart,” he said. “Good Kill” traces the psychological devastation that video game warfare wreaks upon Maj.

It’s unclear whether these are among the “true events” “Good Kill” claims to be based upon, but it doesn’t seem like Niccol’s dramatic license is lagging too far behind reported fact. Still, the director’s heavy hand can be felt in an unnecessary side romance between Tommy and Suarez, in the monologues that stake out various positions on the film’s ethical compass, in overhead shots that draw parallels between the deserts of Afghanistan and Nevada. Egan forms a special bond with a team of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, for whom the drone operators act as a sort of angelic presence as the ground troops engage with enemy forces. It doesn’t sound like it. “The problem is, you’re working for somebody and they decide what clothes you wear and what lines you say,” he said. “And you have to do a year of press, put your face on a lunchbox.” So in the meantime, he keeps his eye out for exciting projects in the independent film world and appreciates the small victories for “Boyhood” or “Before Midnight” when they come. “That’s the triumph of a movie like ‘Boyhood,’ that somehow it was so different it managed to penetrate the zeitgeist without corporate backing,” he said. “I almost stopped believing that could happen.” Prolonged depression gives way to rage – Egan gets physically violent with his wife and angrily throws a bottle of liquor after a cashier makes a joke about his flight suit.

Egan “watches” the platoon sleep via the drone’s cameras. “He feels connected to them,” he said. “He’s actually doing something good he can feel, as opposed to everything else [to which] he has no connection.” Mr. Upon exiting, he was presented for the first time with a report on his accomplishments: He was associated with 1626 kills. “I felt sick to my stomach,” he says. “Civilians were being killed because leadership didn’t care.

Niccol first worked together on the 1997 sci-fi drama “Gattaca,” which described a not-too-distant future where parents can genetically engineer their children. How many people did you kill?” In front of a store full of people, Bryant responded, “If you disrespect the taking of another person’s life ever again, I will find you and kill you in front of your family.” He was asked to leave the store.

To someone outside the military, it might seem that a distinction should be made between those in combat who are on a conflict’s physical front lines and those operating on its technological front lines. Niccol said and laughed when queried about the recurring theme in his work. “I don’t like to analyze what I do, because I’m scared when I do it.” Mr.

Madeline Uddo, a psychologist and team leader of the PTSD clinical team at the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, says PTSD can be diagnosed if a certain number of symptoms outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the guide used in psychiatry to diagnose mental disorders – are present. Furthermore, a Defence Department study from 2013 found that drone pilots experience many stress disorders, including PTSD, at the same rate as aircraft pilots.

Hawke and Niccol say that soldiers like the fictional Egan and the very real Bryant are essentially test subjects, and that what the military asks of them has “never been asked of a soldier before.” It’s an admission that Good Kill is in uncharted territory, but they avoid saying that Egan has PTSD, although Niccol calls what Hawke depicts in the film “an approximation” of PTSD. Hawke has appeared in nearly 20 films and recently became a director in his own right with his documentary “Seymour: An Introduction,” which tells the story of Seymour Bernstein, an 88-year-old New York piano teacher who ceased performing in the 1970s — and whom Mr. Or, as Foreman puts it, “[we’re] not making a statement particularly about anything, while opening up a discussion about everything.” Still, Bryant maintains that the filmmakers, in telling a drone operator’s story, have a responsibility to weigh in on the remorse that many of them face, something he feels Good Kill largely fails to do. “I wanted [them] to make a powerful movie, not just an entertaining one,” he says. “[They] wanted to make something akin to “Top Gun with drones”. They’re doing what our society does – marginalising the traumatic effects of personal experiences.” While this back-and-forth could be chalked up to an outsider not understanding Hollywood’s rules, it indicates a bigger issue: Although troops can perform their duties 11,000 kilometres away from battle, that doesn’t mean they’re safe.

And although drones allow us to see into any corner of the world at any time, when it comes to the psychological effects this type of fighting has on our soldiers, we’re flying blind. Hawke weighed in on if there will be a fourth “Before” film featuring himself and Julie Delpy returning as Jesse and Celine, the American and Frenchwoman who met on a train in Vienna in 1995’s “Before Sunrise,” reunited in Paris in 2004’s “Before Sunset” and were last seen in 2013’s “Before Midnight,” now a middle-aged couple with twins enduring a heated evening on a Greek island that could end their marriage. “There’s something to me about those three films that work in totality,” Mr.

Bryant is currently in an inpatient program designed to help him cope with his PTSD. “When I go back to those memories and my emotions get high,” he says, “I feel rage or extreme depression.

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