In the past few years, Hollywood, which has long held a mirror to society’s myriad blemishes, began to focus its lens on the United States’ controversial drone program—a battalion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) issuing targeted missile attacks largely in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Northwest Pakistan.
A drone targeting suspected terrorist Abu Nazir killed his family, setting into motion the events of Showtime’s Homeland. The fox miniseries 24: Live Another Day saw a massive drone wreak havoc on the city of London. The superhero blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past involved Jennifer Lawrence and Co. going back in time to stop a campaign to unleash mutant-targeting drones, dubbed Sentinels. And another, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, centered on the nefarious organization Hydra’s attempt to launch a trio of drone-dispatching megaships over the country for our own protection.
But never has the drone program, first implemented by former President George W. Bush and accelerated under President Obama, been critiqued with the level of precision and humanity as it does in Good Kill, which made its world premiere at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.
The film, which bears the disclaimer “based on actual events,” is set in 2010 during the greatest string of targeting killing in our nation’s history. That year, the U.S. carried out approximately 122 drone strikes, according to data supplied by the New America Foundation—killing 849 people, including 788 militants, 16 civilians, and 45 unidentified victims. By comparison, in the six previous years of the drone program’s existence, 100 strikes were issued.
Good Kill opens in an air-conditioned trailer on the outskirts of Vegas.
Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is monitoring the Afghan desert through his drone’s viewfinder. The target is acquired, and the strike order is given. Egan pulls the trigger. Within ten seconds, his target vanishes in a muted cloud of smoke and rubble 7,000 miles away. “Splash… Good Kill,” he says, emotionless. Every “Good Kill,” or successfully dispatched militant, costs $68,000 in taxpayer dollars. Following the strike, as well as a damage assessment, Egan is relieved from his shift. He gets in his car, drives past Vegas—the epitome of the western world run amok—and stops off at a convenience store to buy some beer. When the clerk asks him how his day’s going, he replies, “I blew away six Taliban in Pakistan today. Now, I’m going home to barbecue.”
We soon learn that Egan is a grounded pilot who served six tours flying F-16’s in Iraq. He wants to get back in they sky, where the sense of danger and consequence is palpable. “I feel like a coward,” he later confesses. His stunning wife, Molly (January Jones), is thankful their children’s father is home—even if he’s even more distant than he was in between tours. Director Andrew Niccol and cinematographer Amir Mokri cleverly juxtapose Egan’s idyllic suburban existence with the huts and compounds of his would-be targets through corresponding overhead shots.
Back at the base, Egan and his fellow drone operators are given a spirited pep talk by their commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood).
“This ain’t fuckin’ Playstation—even though the program was modeled on X-Box,” he says, “and half of you were recognized in malls because you are fuckin’ gamers.”
Later, Lt. Johns defends the drone program by making mention of the public’s anger over videos of Jihadists “denouncing America” and then “liberating a head from its shoulders.” The moment will send chills up the spines of many Americans, considering the movie’s premiere comes the same week that the Islamic terrorist organization ISIS executed a second American prisoner in retaliation—they claim—for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, publicly denouncing President Obama in the process.
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