Monday, May 25, 2015

"Good Kill": military operations of drones overseas provide challenge to notions of personal cowardice

Good Kill”, as the title of a film, sounds like an oxymoron, and the effect of this indie film by Andrew Niccol, is rather disturbing. ("Drones" is an alternate original title.)  The obvious comparison will be with “American Sniper” (January 16), where the political left (like Michael Moore) called sniping “cowardly,” rather like "fighting with your fingernails." This film is much smaller, with only a few characters and most of the action “simulated”, although set up in Morocco.  Here, an Air Force Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), relieved of flying sabre jets, works in a detachment in the desert near Las Vegas playing video games, directing actual drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and later Yemen.  It’s the ultimate “fight without fighting”.  It’s not hard to predict that the ethical problems will affect his marriage (wife January Jones) and family in a tract house maybe ten miles from the Strip, totally treeless.  It shouldn’t be hard to anticipate that alcohol will affect him, too.  The events take place in 2010, and are supposed to be based on real history.
The complications set in when the detachment is contacted by the CIA, directly from Langley, VA (where Egan thinks life is green and safe – he doesn’t know Washington DC), and told to make kills under more generalized circumstances (based on “signatures”).  The commander (Bruce Greenwood) is OK with this, but not so much the other crew members, especially Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) chosen for the unit because of her unusual IT and gaming skills.  At this point, a movie reviewer has to say, I don’t know if the CIA really does this, or how the chain of command really works when the CIA interacts with the Armed Forces.  But the president (Obama) has apparently approved.  Remember, this history occurs before Osama bin Laden was taken out in 2011 (“Zero Dark Thirty”, Jan. 11, 2013).
The discussion leads to the rationalizations for taking out civilians as “collateral damage” (again, the problem uncovered by Bradley Chelsea Manning (CF blog, April 7, 2010).  The commander points to the civilians in the Twin Towers on 9/11.  But Vera says that the Times Square plot (which was foiled by sharp-eyed public and NYPD) was motivated specifically by the fact that civilians in Muslim countries had been killed by Americans.  (In fact, Jahar’s “manifesto” scribbled in a boat said that.) This sounds rather personal.  I can recall, back in 1972, listening in on a (secular) far left wing meeting in Newark, NJ where even individuals who benefited from the capitalist system and were sheltered as salaried professionals “had it coming to them”.  I certainly have some unfavorable karma on my hands.  I worked as a math instructor in grad school and flunked some students, probably exposing them more to the Vietnam draft.  Then I was able to game the system when I was eventually drafted to avoid combat.  Put all this together, it isn’t pretty.  Death itself eventually comes to every single one of us, and is not controversial.  But some of us don’t have the right to ever be called victims (instead of casualties) or be memorialized.  We need to get this right.
Eventually, Egan chokes on the job, leading to an ending that I don’t completely buy.
The film has very limited theatrical release, but I saw it at ArcLight in Bethesda MD, before a small audience Memorial Day. It’s also available on Amazon Instant Play ($7). I think it helps to see this in a theater if possible. The distributor is IFC and I suspect major studios didn’t want their brands associated with this film. But Paramount  (Vantage) is listed by YouTube as renting the film.  Voltage Pictures and Dune (usually associated with big sci-fi and Universal) are listed as production companies.
The official site is here
The credits say it was filmed in New Mexico and Morocco (where the villages are set up as ancient courtyards), but there are plenty of shots of Las Vegas.

Picture: My trip, May 2012.  

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