The trailer for Good Kill, a movie featuring Ethan Hawke and January Jones that dives into the peculiar existence of USAF drone pilots, particularity the shooting kind, dropped today and it looks... interesting. This will be first of a whole slew of films coming out post-American Sniper that will deal with soldier's wars, both physical and mental.
Good Kill has some great things going for it. Andrew Niccol, whose other credits include some great films, like Gattaca, Truman Show and Lord Of War, directed, produced and wrote this film. The cast is not too shabby either and its timing seems good. But Good Kill's story is hardly original.
Long before there were huge pieces in Rolling Stone and GQ and entire books on the psychological effects of fighting a war via man-in-the-loop flying robot, thousands of miles from actual danger, I sat on a media bus heading into a huge Air Force installation with a guy that did just that on a daily basis. He had graduated from the Academy and came from an intelligence background before getting orders to sit in a Lazy Boy like recliner inside an air conditioned dark trailer where he would observe the enemy from on high for hours on end, and kill with alarming regularity.
Our discussion went from introductions to a fascinating and at the time very rare look into the strange world of a Predator crewman. He explained to me the odd reality of making his kid's lunch in the morning, kissing his wife goodbye, then driving to work in traffic, saying hello to his co-workers on base, and then passing through an aluminum door that miraculously transported him to the bloody battlefield of Iraq. To him, the combat was as real as he had ever seen, and the tension during some of the missions was downright debilitating.
This is what he told me about it:
I look through a blurry camera feed with a soda straw view of the world and watch Americans get blown up while driving down any road Iraq. Then, I get to watch their buddies die trying to pick up their buddy's warm body parts. Most the time I have nobody to shoot back at. It is a hopeless endeavor. Like being ordered to watch a snuff film.
He then told me how he would emerge from the darkness of the Predator command trailer after about 12 hours, drive home to his family, and feel guilty that he had the opportunity to go home to his family while those 19 year old kids in that blown up Hummer would never see theirs again. He would have to act normal, say hi to his kids, have family dinner, hear his wife complain about her co-workers while he was emotionally bent, even traumatized by what happened in that converted shipping container just hours earlier. I remember he said the container was "like a transporter" to a place nobody else could understand.
The Predator's remoteness was a double edge sword. Some days they had to watch the enemy attack without being able to do anything, which was frustrating beyond belief. On other days, they would spot and ambush targets ahead of a convoy and save untold lives or be assigned to track a high-value target before blowing them up at the perfect time and place. They would watch these targets for hours or even days sometimes, learning about them from their perch on high. Launching on them was 'personal' he said but collateral damage, the killing of innocents at a location, was always an issue. They tried their best to make sure it didn't happen, but the reality was there was no way to be sure.
It was abundantly clear, war was hell for this man, at least in comparison to anything else he had experienced in his life.
We talked a little about photography in between his seemingly surreal statements, bonded by a common love of aircraft and the Canon cameras and lenses, but I had to know more about this guy's totally strange existence, so I kept asking questions.
He explained to me that the USAF in general, and its fighter pilot dominated command culture, really doesn't understand the Predator community, nor do they care to. Instead of flowing white scarves it is warm white mugs full of hot coffee. They see it as a second-rung flying and fighting force, although one that is very valuable for certain missions, especially those that don't step on the manned fighter and bomber force's relevancy.
My bus buddy also mentioned that eventually things will come out and people will see how conflicting the environment is for those who venture into it daily. As he put it, a "stress sandwich wrapped in guilt one day, like Superman the next."
Still, seeing as he was not a pilot before, he didn't have an issue with being part of the blossoming unmanned systems community. He saw it as a career move above anything else where getting in on the ground floor as a young officer could pay off later down the line. Although, he said that those who joined the USAF to fly seemed to have all the stressful conditions mentioned above but amplified. The reality is, through this half hour conversation, he seemed like he really loved his job and was excited to see where the technology will go in the future, but he knew the psychological issues surrounding it would one day emerge and be part of a public conversation.
Fast forward close to a decade later and he was totally right on all accounts, to the point that he seemed to have a nearly perfect scientific evaluation of the psychological effects. Now, after an untold number of features in print and on television about the subject matter, we get a movie about it from some of the same team that did Hurt Locker.
The truth is that we will be flooded with a new breed of war movies in the coming years. Hurt Locker introduced the world to a new modern concept of war film, one that was gritty and emphasized realism and the mental anguish of combat based on modern conflicts. It also showed Hollywood that war subjects were not immune to Oscar nominations.
Zero Dark Thirty was profitable success that made new stars, also got Oscar noms, yet told a story everyone in the world already new. American Sniper on the other hand was a financial home run, bringing in half a billion dollars on a production budget just a tenth of that gross.
The metrics behind American Sniper, also a story where everyone pretty much knew how it would end, were ground breaking because it sold tickets across a wide array of demographic classes. This proved that a modern war movie, even with its R rating handicap, could compete with the wide demographic pandering and hugely expensive to produce super hero films when it came to the box office.
Is a slew of new war films really a good thing? It all depends on the level of quality. Good Kill may be a blind barometer of what is to come within the genre but its biggest challenge, and its biggest potential pitfall, is how it will take a story already available in the media and turn it into something worth the price of admission. By sexing up the topic with love stories and too much unrealistic action, the whole point behind it could get lost and its level of honesty will end up being questioned.
It is clear that we have arrived in the anti-Top Gun military movie era, where grit, realism and the internal battle takes the place of a pounding soundtrack, striking patriotic visuals, dumbed-down violence and the munching down of your popcorn knowing full well the good guy will win and get the girl in the end. Think of it as a new anti-Maverick reality, where the line between good and bad, hero and villain, patriotism and America bashing, blurs into one big hale of gunfire, explosions, blood and tears.
We will have to wait till May 15th to see if Good Kill will live up to its controversial name.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com