Interview: Ethan Hawke and director Andrew Niccol zero in on Good Kill

Reunited for the first time since Gattaca, the actor and the filmmaker are raising questions — and their fair share of hell — with a new movie that takes the viewer inside the new theatre of war: climate-controlled trailers parked on U.S. soil

By Katherine Monk

TORONTO – As the Obama Administration faces mounting pressure to disclose the grisly details of drone strikes on civilians across the Middle East this week, a new movie threatens to blow the whole unmanned aerial vehicle program sky high.

It’s called Good Kill, and unlike the handful of documentaries that have already taken the drone strategy to task for its arm’s length summary executions of suspected terrorists, it’s a dramatic film starring solid Hollywood stars Ethan Hawke, January Jones and Canada’s own Bruce Greenwood.

Writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, S1mOne, Lord of War, The Host) says he wasn’t looking for controversy when he started researching the subject and speaking to former drone pilots a few years ago.

“The movie is trying to walk a straight line and present what is,” he says with a slow, careful emphasis that betrays a certain amount of frustration – if not media ennui.

“I’m already getting into lots of trouble just for being honest with this movie. I’m not trying to give you any answers. I’m shedding light on it to give you context. You know, we’ve always heard about drone strikes but we’ve never seen inside the drone program: How it actually works and what it does to a person. What does it do to your psyche when you go to war, go home and repeat?”

Focused on the character of Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), the movie takes us into the air-conditioned trailers lined up on Air Force base tarmacs across the U.S. to see the daily reality of drone warfare: Egan sits at a control panel, pushes buttons, and kills people all day long. If it weren’t for the live video feed showing the limbs blown off his targets, it would look like a videogame arcade.

Hawke says that’s the problem: Because there is no risk to the pilots whatsoever, it may as well be a videogame, which essentially redefines the very act of war, as well as the soldier’s ethos.

“What’s happening is a pilot will be at war with the Taliban for twelve hours, then go home and buy groceries and pick up the kids. Then go back in and fight the Taliban again,” he says.

“So I find it very easy to understand why somebody might lose their way and lose their own internal moral compass when they’re being asked to live this very strange life. You know, in the old days, you would fly a mission in an F-16 and you could very well get shot down. Your life was in danger, and it was very difficult work,” says Hawke.

“Now you are flying a drone and you aren’t even in the plane. And you not only have to make these moral decisions in the moment, you’re being asked to do it without risk. You’re just taking pot shots. And you move on. But at some level, it racks your soul.”

It was the emotional side of the voyage that brought Niccol and Hawke together again after their successful collaboration on Gattaca, a science-fiction film dealing with genetic engineering that also asked some uncomfortable questions.

“Technology forces us to make these ethical decisions in which there is no clear black and white answer. There are good things genetic engineering can do. There are good things stem cell research can do — amazing things, really, but there’s a flipside to it all that we haven’t really explored. And that’s what Andrew is doing here. He is asking the harder questions about what it does to us. You know, are we ceding our humanity in the pursuit of technology?” says Hawke.

Niccol says the new face of war may be so sterilized and so cheap, it will become a viable option in perpetuity, leading to a constant state of war, which – if one were cynical – would be the most profitable option.

“It’s complicated. They call it the ‘least worst’ option. Drones are very precise as long as you get the right address, and you can do over-watch and protect troops on the ground. But the more convenient and inexpensive war becomes – not just from a cost perspective, but from a PR standpoint—the possibility of endless war increases exponentially,” says Niccol.

Hawke says there’s no use burying our heads in the sand. Drone strikes have killed thousands, some of whom were no doubt innocent civilians written off as “collateral damage.”

“These pilots are following orders, and these are grown-up problems without easy answers. It’s wonderful the troops are coming home. But the drones are not. The people in Afghanistan certainly know the drones are there,” he says.

Niccol nods: “That’s the interesting thing to me: We are fighting a ‘war on terror’ but we are terrorizing people as we do it. People are afraid to congregate in groups anymore for fear they will be seen as a threat from the air, even if it’s just a town hall meeting. They are also afraid of blue skies, because that’s when the drones can see everything. And for humans to be afraid of a blue sky, to me, is kind of horrific.”

Both men know they’re taking a few risks of their own just by raising public awareness, but they’re ready for the blowback and accusations of being unpatriotic.

“The answer to that one is always easy,” says Hawke. “Freedom of speech is what we go to war to protect. It’s a fundamental American ideal, and that’s all we’re doing with this movie,” he says. “We’re just presenting facts, and asking about the human cost.”

Niccol says there’s been a Sisyphus quality to the whole undertaking. “I won’t tell you my life is easy,” he says. “But I thought it was important that people know how all this works. You read in the paper there was a drone strike and you see a big crater. Well, how did it get there? I was curious and I educated myself. I wrote this story so people can at least understand what’s being done in our name, as civilians, and get a better understanding of what it’s doing to the minds of these men who have heroic aims, but often feel like cowards.”

Good Kill opens in theatres across North America May 15.




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