Sometimes films are made with the best of intentions but, for whatever reason, just end up being bad examples of whatever they were trying to portray. This commonly happens with political message films, where the writers can become so invested in conveying an ideology that they forego creating a worthwhile narrative or characters in order to carry the message in an entertaining way. Good Kill is a film with the noblest of intentions, but it bungles so many very basic elements of compelling storytelling that it just cannot be considered a good film.
The political purpose of this actually underpublicized film is to bring awareness to drone strikes, how they affect the populations they survey and kill, and how they cause a unique form of PTSD for soldiers here in the United States. Enter Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), a former pilot who has been assigned to a Nevada base where he clocks in every day to sit at a desk and control a drone over Afghanistan. What follows from that basic premise is a fairly standard tale of how PTSD affects those who suffer from it and how it affects their loves ones, but it is told only about as effectively as in American Sniper, perhaps even less adequately so.
The main problem is that this film is devoid of identifiable characters. Nobody feels like a real human being, least of all Hawke who, despite being a decent actor, just can’t convincingly pull off dead serious roles that ask him to be completely devoid of levity. Nearly every other character is nothing more than a speechifying mouthpiece of writer-director Andrew Niccol’s views on drone strikes and the military complex that allows them to continue to accept collateral damage in the name of stopping terrorism. The fact that I may agree with these points doesn’t make the story any more compelling; the actors are just props to spout lines that spin a particular political sentiment, yet don’t communicate anything more than that. The only exception seems to come in the form of January Jones as Major Egan’s wife, yet she seems to be perpetually stuck playing Mad Men’s Betty Draper with less and less effectiveness as the years wear on.
Even if one were to take the film’s political message as de facto good writing, the ending completely sabotages the consistency of the ideology as presented up until that point. I think this subtext was probably entirely inadvertent, but the final moments of the film involve Major Egan going off assignment to kill a target that he does not have permission to kill, but he feels morally justified in doing so given some of the atrocities he watched his victim perpetrate. This carries the unfortunate implication that sometimes drone strikes can be justified, and what feels like it was intended to act as a protagonist’s cathartic climactic moment only ends up confusing the tentpole theme that kept the whole story aloft.
Good Kill is a really unfortunate film because it seems to have a lot of potential in its premise and its ideological stance. But a film needs to be more than just an ideological stance. To now make a contrast to American Sniper, whereas that film was so devoid of ideology as to be soulless, this film sacrificed its characters and plot upon the alter of ideology. Neither makes for a good film; as always, there needs to be balance and moderation in narrative writing, but especially so in political drama.