Director Andrew Niccol on drones, PTSD, and ‘Good Kill’ on Blu-ray today


“Drones aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re going everywhere.”

Good Kill is a film that delves deep into painting a portrait of the human side of drone warfare. Set in 2010, the film is a blistering journey that not only is about military unmanned aerial vehicles, but also a harsh look into the life of someone facing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), written and directed by creative genius Andrew Niccol.

Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) is a U.S. Air Force pilot with a total of six tours of duty flying F-16s behind him. After serving his country in the air, he is now dejectedly operating drones from the safety of an air-conditioned control room, stationed in the deserts of Las Vegas. After flying mission after mission for 12 hours, Major Egan then goes home in the lofty suburbs to his wife, Molly (January Jones). She desperately tries each day to connect with her husband, as his mind gradually wanders away, eventually towards the decision to drink away the memories of the people he had killed over 7,000 miles away earlier that day.

Everything begins to change for Egan, though, when the CIA become involved with the drone program, and Egan starts to question the missions. Is he creating more terrorists than he’s killing? As his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), rationalizes it: “Don’t ask me if this is a just war. It’s just war.” This leads to a downward spiral that spins wildly out of control for Egan, and everything that he truly cares about barely hang in the balance, with not only him losing his chance to ever fly again, but also losing his friends, his family, but most of all, his mind.


Niccol finds himself in new territory with this film, as he wanted to create a film that all started with an article he read. “I read this article online that said that the drone program was more ‘Truman show than Terminator’. It’s the voyeuristic aspect of what these guys have to do that drew me to it.” The article he’s referring to is a piece in Popular Science detailing the stories of drone pilots who dealt with the realities of watching their actions from countries away being played out on a small screen in front of them, leaving only craters from the missile blasts they had just fired. “I was just fascinated by the schizophrenia of this new warfare,” he states, “where we go to war with this country, and you never go to that country. You just basically stay above it, and that’s where you conduct your war. It’s our future.”

To create the authentic feelings that the characters express in the film, Niccol did extensive research by speaking to ex-drone pilots, himself, and getting first-hand knowledge of the type of life it takes to be one. “Unfortunately for the Air Force, there’s a lot of burnout in the drone program, so there’s a lot of ex-drone pilots.” In a 2011 survey of nearly 840 drone operators, it found that 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots, and 48 percent of Global Hawk sensor operators, reported “high operational stress”, to which the Air Force didn’t consider this a dangerous level of stress.


When it came to casting, Niccol mentioned that he had an unorthodox approach to roping in Ethan Hawke. “It was a really funny part of it, actually. When I saw Ethan was perfect for it, I did call him up, and said ‘You know, Ethan, that great facility you have with language? We are not going to need any of that,'” he laughed. “His character was the strong silent type, and at the time the movie came out, Ethan was all over the place with his film ‘Boyhood’, so he would joke that he was in the feel-good film of the year, and the feel-bad movie of the year, in the same year!” Luckily, the film had several other great actors alongside Hawke, including Zoë Kravitz, who played Airman Vera Suarez, and of course, January Jones, who played his wife, Molly. “(In his role) he couldn’t give them anything, which is a testament to January Jones. She was acting up against a brick wall. She was goading him for any reaction, and guys with PTSD like that, they don’t – they just emotionally just shut down.” About 4.3 percent of 1,000 drone operators studied were found to have experienced moderate to severe PTSD, in a study reported by LiveScience. These numbers, as small as they may seem, are still an important number, as these operators suffer from things like recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating, and many other ailments. “Because he’s doing something, that he considers, cowardly, at this point,”Niccol explains, “he’s feeling these feelings of PTSD, but he can’t really walk into a hospital and say ‘Look, this is what I got’. They would probably say to him that you’re sitting in an armchair, but even though he’s sitting in an armchair, he’s witnessing things in high-def that no soldier’s ever had to witness before. He’s seeing the destruction that he’s causing. Normally if you’re a pilot, you drop your bombs, and you fly away. Now you drop your bombs, and then you see what you did, and you count the dead.”

Good Kill is a film that carries its dark tones, not just for entertainment, but for enlightenment. Niccol is a man that produces great films that dare to ask the question: good or bad, without limits, what are the extents that we can allow our minds to drive towards? With such controversial films, like Good Kill, we catch a small glimpse of how servicemen and women face the depths of PTSD, clinging to what is left of their psyche. The film lunges forward in creating a centerpiece for conversation, and allows the viewers to stir up thoughts of how some of our armed forces, specifically our drone program, deal with things in reality. “I hope it sheds light on the subject, and it provokes thought. This is taken as something of a cautionary tale, because with these wars, we could get to point where, because war is now easier, and it’s cheaper, and there’s no body bags coming home, that it could become an endless war. I think that’s something to think about.”

Good Kill, directed by Andrew Niccol, and starring Ethan Hawke, January Jones, and Zoë Kravitz makes its way to Blu-ray and DVD in stores today, September 1st.

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