Ethan Hawke likes drones. That’s the impression I got, at least, after watching the actor talking about his role as a U.S. Air Force drone pilot in the timely new movie Good Kill, which screened in Washington this week and opens in theaters Friday.
Hawke plays Maj. Thomas Egan, a former F-16 pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then reluctantly left the cockpit for a windowless container in the Nevada desert. Now he’s coming apart at the seams, but not because of a moral crisis about killing people from 7,000 miles away. No, Egan is jonesing for the thrill that he got only from risking his life in a fighter jet, zooming over terrorists’ heads on the battlefield. Drones just don’t do it for him.
There’s no speechifying or obvious moralizing from Egan about the ethics, or even the legality, of targeted killing. Egan himself is practically a robot, at least at the start of the film. And like the machines he flies, he is just following orders from more powerful humans. The closest we get to an overt critique of drones is when Egan’s co-pilot, Airman Vera Suarez (played by Zoe Kravitz), joins his team and starts to upset the whole “good kill” vibe by questioning why the Air Force is killing suspected terrorists without knowing their identities—so-called signature strikes the team is ordered to conduct by the CIA. Suarez compares that kind of anonymous killing to what terrorists do.
So when the film finished, I found myself wondering where on the pro/con spectrum Hawke really came down. The big reveal came during the Q&A, moderated by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (because after watching people get blown up for two hours, apparently we hadn’t suffered enough).
Hawke didn’t need a moderator. And his opinion on whether drones are good or bad honestly surprised me. I think it’s fair to say that the politically liberal position on drone strikes is that they’re more trouble than they’re worth, and that in general we expect Hollywood stars to toe a liberal line. Hawke didn’t.
Instead, he recalled the firebombings of Dresden in World War II and the carpet bombings of Cambodia in the Vietnam War, which, he noted, indiscriminately killed astounding numbers of innocent people. Drones, on the other hand, can precisely aim at one person, or one small group of people, he observed. And though innocents are dying, they’re clearly not dying at the rate of wars past.
“There’s obviously a huge step forward being made,” Hawke said.
Drones: a huge step forward. Having covered targeted killing and the drone program for many years, I’m used to hearing that argument from people on the right of the political spectrum (which, for all I know, maybe Hawke is) and from government officials in order to preserve the United States’ authority to use drones and to justify drone strikes as a humanitarian proposition. Meaning that they comply strictly with the international laws of armed conflict, which require nations to do everything they can to kill only combatants and to minimize collateral damage to civilians. And also that killing by drone is a more humane form of warfare, insofar as war can be humane.
Hawke offered a nuanced critique of the U.S. drone program and the nature of war. With the “great power of drones comes great responsibility,” he said, to use them judiciously, and with restraint. Drones make it easier to project force anywhere, which risks turning the U.S. “into the world police,” he said, asking rhetorically, “Are we setting our country up to be in perpetual war?”
These are precisely the dilemmas that military leaders, lawmakers, intelligence officials, and the White House have been grappling with ever since the first lethal drone strikes began during the George W. Bush administration. President Obama accelerated the drone program and was the first to kill U.S. citizens who’d joined forces with terrorists. The next president will command a military that is buying more drones than manned planes and is conducting several lethal missions a day in multiple countries around the world—two points the film forcefully makes in an opening scene in which the drone squad commander Lt. Col. Jack Johns (played by Bruce Greenwood) is lecturing a new class of drone pilots about how this war works.
“Drones aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re going everywhere,” he says. It’s just one of several pithy and often darkly comic lines that capture the unsettling essence of this new era of conflict. “Don’t ask me if this a just war,” Johns tells his pilots. “It’s just war.”
Andrew Niccol, who wrote, produced, and directed the film, told me in an interview that he didn’t set out to create a polemic. Instead, he wanted to show “two sides to that coin of how precise [drones] can be, and yet you can precisely kill the wrong person.” Sounds like an argument against drones. But it’s not.
“To be anti the drone program is like being anti the Internet,” Niccol said.
That’s probably the least debatable or controversial point the movie makes, and it does so repeatedly. There is an inevitability to drones. And whether they really make good kills isn’t a question the filmmakers tried to answer.