Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 3
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
We have all seen lots of thrillers and war films in which the bad guys are blown up by rockets fired from a drone flying high above them. Only in passing are we usually shown the team that triggered the attack sitting before their monitors. In this powerful film, directed and written by Andrew Niccol, we spend most of the time in one of those trailers parked at an Airforce base just outside of Las Vegas, where the team members spend 12 hours at a time staring at their monitors and awaiting orders. They are long distant killers, their quarry thousands of miles away in Afghanistan. The story is not an action one, as with most war movies, but a psychological one showing the emotional and moral effects of their pulling the trigger day after day.
Ethan Hawke’s Thomas Egan has served six tours flying F-16s in Iraq, but now he and his teammates operate drones from their trailers in the Nevada desert. “I’m a pilot, and I’m not flying,” he complains. Although the signs on the trailer doors read, “You Are Now Leaving the U.S.A.,” at the end of his shift he gets into his van and drives home to his wife Molly (January Jones) and his son and daughter. They, of course, love having him home, but he has begun to withdraw from them, especially Molly. She longs to have him talk about what is bothering him, but he continues to put her off.
The title comes from the comment after each successful strike takes out a Taliban bad guy, “Good kill!” Unfortunately, there are also some “bad kills,” as in the one when a boy and a girl, at play in the street, run in front of the targeted house. There is no time to abort, there being but 8 to 10 seconds between pulling the trigger and the missile hitting its target, so after the cloud of the explosion clears away, Egan sees sprawled on the ground the dead children. Although their superiors try to sanitize this result by calling it “collateral damage,” the men (and one woman) in the trailer are the ones who see the results of their pulling the trigger. There is no elation that the bad guy will no longer terrorize and kill.
Their commanding officer Lt. Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood) gives pep talks to new recruits in which he rationalizes the strikes, pointing out that they are so successful that now the military orders more drones than manned aircraft. In this program Egan’s flying experience is no longer needed—indeed most of the new recruits were selected because of their skills honed on video games!
Egan’s conscience becomes even more troubled when the CIA takes command of the program. Hitherto the Muslims targeted have been carefully proven to be terrorists. Now the mere suspicion that a man has a terrorist connection makes him a legitimate target. Egan has two teammates who react in different ways to the assignments. His backup technician Joe Zimmer (Jake Abel) is all for the program, viewing all Muslims as basically terrorists. However, Egan’s new co-pilot Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) is possibly even more troubled than he, or at least more willing to express out loud her qualms. During the course of various conversations she opines that now they are terrorists, too.
At home Egan’s relationship deteriorates due to his silence about what troubles him. Matters improve a bit when he confesses to Molly his involvement in the long distant killing of the innocent as well as the guilty, but this does not last. Eventually, his frustration erupts in a bedroom scene when he smashes with his fist a wall mirror. It is not long until Molly is packing up the children and driving to her parents’ home in Reno.
A subplot that is part of Egan’s frustration involves the team watching as a gun carrying warrior enters a home and, in the courtyard strikes a woman and then pushes her against the wall while raping her. This happens several times, the Americans watching in horror and yet unable to intervene and rescue the woman.
In a way this war film reminds me of the classic 1949 film Twelve O’Clock High in that the bulk of the story takes place within a command post rather than on the battlefield (or in the skies). However our present hero is plagued by guilt, whereas Gregory Peck’s character is dealing with changing a group of dispirited pilots into a winning unit—there is no moral ambiguity concerning their bombing the Nazi enemy, even though hundreds of women and children are also killed. In so many ways waging World War 2 was so much simpler for us then than our wars in the Middle East today.
We see Afghanistan only from the air through the monitors watched over by our guys. There also are many aerial shots of Las Vegas, of Egan’s van moving along a highway, as well of his lovely South Western style home. (The Egan’s apparently are from the Midwest or East, as we see that he is the only one in his suburban neighborhood maintaining a water-thirsty patch of green lawn in his back yard.) The American aerial views might bring up the matter of surveillance: will it come to pass that we too will come under such scrutiny? The documentary Citizen Four reveals that already our government has been monitoring our telephone calls and email: who knows what might come next as the War on Terrorism continues to esculate and we are willing to compromise our scrupples about privacy?
Long before the slightly ambiguous ending, filmmaker Andrew Niccol makes plain his unfavorable view of the drone program. But he also, through Lt. Colonel Johns states the rationale behind our current policy. It saves American lives and money. Given the reluctance to commit ground troops to fighting the terrorists, drones are the only way we have have of fighting an implacable enemy. The growing hatred of America by Muslims because of so much “collateral damage” is mentioned, though not a lot, the thrust of the story being on the resultant damage to the psyche and morals of the soldiers pulling the trigger. This is a film more Americans should be seeing and discussing. Unfortunately, despite the stature of its star, Ethan Hawke, Niccol’s film has been relegated to the art house circuit, so you might have to search to find a venue carrying it.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. A subscription to the journal will also give you access to Lectionary Links, a feature for preachers that links a film to one or more lessons from the Common Lectionary.