What We Talk About When We Talk About Drone Strikes or “Good Kill”

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GoodKillWhen Voltage Pictures President Nicolas Chartier got a wrist-slap for openly appealing to Academy voters on behalf of his project The Hurt Locker in 2010, he may have been “uninvited” to the Oscars, but certainly proved to be the rare creative executive to speak his mind. Ironically, Chartier’s thesis holds up today: to paraphrase ‘no actor studies Shakespeare to end up in the Avengers.’

While Avengers: Age of Ultron storms the box office with imaginary combat, flashy capes, and uber-human skills on display in CGI, globally a lot is going on in actual wartime. These are makeshift deadly combatants, even entire militarized villages. In hotspots like Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan where IED’s and civilian casualties add up to a gritty tragic hyper-reality. So when Voltage’s new war drama Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke, Bruce Greenwood, January Jones, and Zoe Kravitz is released by IFC Films on May 15, it will be viewed as thematic, another complex “message” movie riffing on modern warfare, specifically focused on weapons-grade drones.

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THE ANTITHESIS OF TOP GUN?

Director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War), much like his French producer Chartier, comes from outside Hollywood, New Zealand to be precise, and his perspective is replete with details meticulously researched as an outsider, as one who grew up as an observer of a Superpower and its mighty footprint created by the US Military. His learning curve was spent with drone pilots from places like Creech Air Base in Nevada which is hub central for MQ-1 Predator drones, the munitions-carrying remotes that are deployed half a world away. Significantly, “The Military Times” covered an early interview with Ethan Hawke on his role as F-16 pilot Tommy Egan who is repurposed as a drone pilot, so the film gets that tacit endorsement. Hawke even revealed that his brother is a Green Beret Colonel.

BruceEthanGKBut far from a rah-rah war picture, Good Kill’s approach is kind of the anti-Top Gun anthem. It opens a human side to this silent-type now-grounded flyer, his Las Vegas dancer wife Molly (January Jones), with a conflicted commander Lt. Col. Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), and morally uncertain fellow ‘airmen’ like Suarez, played by Hunger Games’ Zoe Kravitz. One of the key “characters” of the film could be seen as the drone itself, around which all of the action centers.

It’s a hallmark of many award-reaching films to educate an audience on any given shrouded topic. Good Kill works hard to rip back the curtain on this aspect of current warplay. So how do Drones operate and why is this picture working so hard to educate the public about this process?

GAME OF DRONES: A 20-SECOND HISTORICAL PRIMER

In 1849, the Austrians used balloons with munitions attached to barrage the city of Venice, which to some is the early origin of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Next comes Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, with the dirigibles, used first in WWI, which required an anti-airship breakthrough in technology in the form of the Hewitt Sperry “Automatic Airplane” (or “flying bomb”) as an unmanned counter-strike as unmanned aerial torpedo. By 1917, the US Army adopts the Automatic Airplane concept refitted as the “Kettering Bug,” flown in 1918 but never fully deployed because the war ended too soon. By 1936, US and British breakthroughs resulted in coining the term “Drone” meaning radio-controlled aircraft. Through the 1950’s drone technology flatlined with Beechcraft’s Model 1001, until around 1960. After the famous U-2 high altitude ’stealth-like’ surveillance plane was downed that year, the military formally began “Red Wagon,” the UAV R&D dedicated program. The rest is Military History, from the Tonkin Gulf use of drones in 1973 to the 1987 Israeli-pioneered “tailless” thrust-vector flight control models with jet steering. By 1991, surveilling drones were re-engineered to carry arms, making them a capable weapon of warfare deployed in the Persian Gulf. DroneGKAnd 9/11 sealed the deal to fully engage remotely powered armed drones, now know as UCAV’s (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) into full-time active duty. Serious political ramifications of waging remote drone warfare date back to 1995 to wit: the MQ-1 Predator, made by General Atomics, was sanctioned for NATO intervention in Bosnia to some debate, and the Feb. 2001 debut of the Hellfire Missile for which the Predator #3034 was specifically fitted, raised concerns. Next technical specs borrowed from the joystick-driven gaming FPS (First Person Shooter) world of PlayStation were dialed in. Finally, the CIA co-opts this game of drones to run Covert Ops, enter Good Kill “based on actual events” set in 2010, which is the year of record for the biggest spike in remote strikes.

NOW BACK TO OUR MOVIE

Ethan Hawke’s F-16 Fighter Pilot character from the 61st Attack Squadron has logged 3000 hours, 200 combat missions, and guess who’s not happy at a desk job on remote “fly and fry” sorties? Here Good Kill opens the door to ambivalence, a mind poison from a Military perspective. In discussing the film, Hawke is quick to point out that at no point in history could anyone “fry” a town 7000 miles away and still “pick up your kids after school.”

EthanZoeBruceGKThat is the pivot that left-turns Good Kill from a typical war film, and from recent Oscar contender American Sniper (Bradley Cooper). There are no hard and fast gives, answers or locked conclusions. A drone can ‘Overwatch’ to alert Troops to save their lives. Or it can whip up city-block collateral damage in the form of leveling crowds of funeral mourners, and underage civilian body counts. Director Niccol, to his credit, wanders purposely into this dreaded swamp of moral confusion that blockbuster tentpoles avoid like the plague.

“It’s about the new schizophrenia of war,” Niccol clarifies. “After fighting the Taliban for 12 hours a day, Tommy goes home to the suburbs to feud with his wife and kids for the other 12. Set during the greatest escalation of drone strikes (2010), it’s about the moral conflicts and dilemmas of new technology. But it is very much a personal story. Tommy is becoming a casualty of a war he is fighting half a world away, all while in absolutely in no danger” in a hangar behind a joystick.

MORAL CONFUSION IS NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE

That’s a good reason to watch the Good Kill’s, meaning movies of this ilk from IFC Films and other distributors, when they come along whether they make it into awards contention or get overlooked. Not just because they peel back layers of complacency, but because they “leave a question mark” rather than closure. The cinematography here alone, with over-saturated color and art-like moments, underscores this intent.

AND BRUCE GREENWOOD HAS SOME GREAT LINES

“I think I got all the dialogue,” Bruce Greenwood jokes. “This guy never stops talking.” Choice lines include “It might just be the best worst option.” The drone is “not the future of war. It is the fucking here and now.” “It’s not our concern if this is a just war. For us, it’s just War<.” And, finally, “Warheads on Foreheads” kind of sums up the shorthand that defines Modern Warfare. Greenwood adds, “now that I know a little bit more about the mechanics of it and how we prosecute drone warfare, it is a little more disquieting. But it seems as though the conflict around the world is escalating at an ever increasing pace, and it is frightening.”

[Good Kill, from the gutsy producers of The Hurt Locker and released by IFC Films  opens May 15, and it will be interesting to see how it plays at awards time.]

(Editor’s Note: Facts here culled from RedOrbit, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Military Times.)

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