‘Good Kill’ offers blistering look at ‘battlefields and blackjack’ of drone warfare

Air Force pilot Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke) walks into a Las Vegas liquor store, and the clerk, sizing up Egan’s flight suit, asks if he’s ever flown in a war.

“Blew away six Taliban in Afghanistan just today,” Egan informs him. “Now I’m going home to barbecue.”

Set in 2010, “Good Kill” offers a blistering look at the escalating horrors of drone warfare and the toll it takes on those waging it — ostensibly from Creech Air Force Base, about 45 miles north of Las Vegas in Indian Springs. The word “Creech,” though, is never used.

“Even though the strikes (in the movie) themselves are well-documented, I can’t say for sure they were flown out of Creech or out of Holloman (Air Force Base in New Mexico) or one of the other bases,” writer-director Andrew Niccol says. “So, just out of respect, I didn’t want to say that this definitely occurred out of Creech, because I don’t know that.”

Opening at Tropicana Cinemas on Friday, the day it becomes available on a variety of digital platforms, “Good Kill” starts as a sly, sardonic look at the new face of warfare.

“Best use of 68,000 taxpayer dollars I’ve seen all day,” Spc. Zimmer (Jake Abel) crows after a successful missile strike. “Good luck figuring out which bits go in what casket,” he adds after six insurgents are all but vaporized. At one point, he sings Eddie Money’s “Two Tickets to Paradise” after a second missile hits its target.

Airman Suarez (Zoe Kravitz), a newcomer to Egan’s four-member crew, sums up the oddities of waging war in the Middle East from an air-conditioned trailer in Nevada with a dry, “Battlefields and blackjack — every girl’s fantasy.”

To portray the blackjack part of the equation, Niccol (“Gattaca,” “Lord of War”) and his crew spent “only about a week” in Las Vegas before filming the bulk of “Good Kill” in Albuquerque thanks to New Mexico’s more generous tax credits.

But with the exception of one “downtown” scene that clearly wasn’t filmed here, despite the presence of the Stratosphere in the background, it’s hard to tell where Las Vegas ends and Albuquerque begins.

The only other part of Las Vegas in “Good Kill” that doesn’t ring true: Egan commutes to and from work via the length of the Strip.

“Yeah, geographically I took some license there,” Niccol admits, but he had a good reason. “Because it’s become such a global phenomenon, the drone program, to have those symbols along the Strip of other countries seemed just so perfect. So I definitely wanted to use that.”

As “Good Kill” progresses, Egan’s crew and its commanding officer, Lt. Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood), fall under the command of the CIA, portrayed by a voice (supplied by Peter Coyote) known only as Langley on an intercom. Soon, they’re no longer blowing up armed insurgents, they’re being ordered to launch strikes that will purposely also kill women and children. The commands become increasingly egregious, including obliterating first responders and funerals.

Egan and his co-pilot, Suarez, carry out some of the missions with tears in their eyes, and Suarez openly wonders whether they’re committing war crimes.

“All the drone strikes you see have occurred,” Niccol attests. “I didn’t make any of those up. I didn’t exaggerate any of those.

“I modeled all the drone strikes on WikiLeaks, because that’s the only way that the drone strikes are disseminated. I like to say that (Afghan War logs leaker) Chelsea Manning almost deserves a research assistant’s credit.”

Egan, who flew six tours of duty and is desperate to get back into a real cockpit, is haunted by having seen the faces of those he’s killing, not to mention his having to stick around and use the drone’s camera to count the bodies.

There’s an intimacy to his new role that he’d never faced, which leads to his keeping a bottle of vodka under the bathroom sink and, eventually, in his free hand while he’s behind the wheel of his 1967 Firebird. The damage it inflicts on him, as well as his relationship with his wife (January Jones of “Mad Men”), is devastating.

The emotions feel as raw and real as the strikes themselves.

“I used ex-drone pilots to authenticate everything,” Niccol says. “And I had two of them on set the whole time, just to make sure that the language was right and how they were operating the drone was correct. And it’s not difficult to find them, because there’s a lot of burnout amongst drone pilots.”

Unlike “American Sniper,” which some moviegoers vehemently argued took a pro-war stance while others felt just as strongly that it was anti-war, Niccol confirms he hasn’t heard from anyone who had a positive view of drone warfare after seeing “Good Kill.”

“One of the interesting things about the film is that some people say it’s anti-American,” the New Zealand-born filmmaker says, “and in Europe they say it’s too pro-American.”

But, Niccol concludes, there’s really no point in opposing the use of military drones.

“To be anti-drone is like saying you’re anti the Internet. The drone program is not going anywhere. It’s here to stay … and that’s going to be the new normal for war. We’re going to have more and more remote war. It’s just a new tool. You can’t be against it, you just have to weigh whether or not it’s being used responsibly.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @life_onthecouch.

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