On Pixels and Moral Injury: A Conversation with the Makers of ‘Good Kill’

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By Alex Pasternack (@pasternack)

A version of this story first appeared on Motherboard – VICE

Ethan Hawke has this specific fear about the future. “I’ve often thought about this,” he says, leaning in. “Soon, there will be a movie starring Steve McQueen, soon computers will generate a new Steve McQueen—or there’ll be a new Marilyn Monroe performance. And there will be less and less parts for schmucks like me. And how will that feel?”

Up close and in person, Hawke looks actually concerned. We probably could have done it by Skype or Slack, but we are doing the interview in a Manhattan hotel room, the day after the U.S. premiere of Good Kill, in which Hawke plays an American drone pilot. Sitting next to him, Andrew Niccol, the New Zealand-born director and writer of the movie, considers the dronification of Hollywood for a moment. “There will be more parts for you,” he replies. “And you won’t have to leave the house!”

True, Hawke says. At a Q&A for the film the day before, the absurdity of being met by a sea of cameras wasn’t lost on him. “Nobody’s actually even here. I could have done this at home, you could watch this on your phone, and you can stream it, whatever!”

Niccol wrote The Truman Show, and he previously directed Hawke in the genetic engineering fable Gattaca in 1997, so the weird future is familiar ground. There’s an angst about technology coursing through Niccol’s movies (Lord of War and Simonecome to mind), and about injustice and violence too (even In Time was a statement about income inequality). For Niccol, the drone could be a dystopian device if it weren’t a matter of historical record.

“If you were to show this movie to somebody ten years ago, it’d feel like Philip K. Dick wrote it,” Hawke says. “And yet, here we are and it’s a period piece.”

The movie opens with a title card reminding us that weaponized drones made their debut in the skies over Afghanistan five days after Sept. 11 (the idea had already been in the works beforehand). In Good Kill, it is 2010, at the height of the CIA’s drone war, and Hawke is the Air Force fighter pilot who has “graduated” to drone operator, firing missiles on unsuspecting houses and vehicles from a trailer on an Air Force base in Las Vegas—a job that is slowly eating away at his soul.

To prepare for the role, Hawke relied on Niccol’s script (“acting is easy when the DNA of the character is in place,” he says, an indirect Gattaca reference?) and on conversations with former drone operators.

“It’s interesting, the kind of depression that unfolds,” he says of drone pilots, who are tasked with protecting troops and killing people, but, he says, experience little of the honor and bravery and physical adversity that tend to come with old fashioned warfare. “These drone pilots are doing the hard part from a human point of view, and they’re being robbed of the part where the integrity comes from, which is putting yourself in harm’s way.” Hawke’s pilot, he says, is “a human being searching for some sense of agency. I want to feel. I don’t want to be a machine. He’s struggling.”

Among contemporary war movies, Good Kill is among the most psychological: there’s a lot of drones-eye-view video, a lot of bright Vegas desert and neon, and a lot of mental anguish, registered in the form of a numb-looking Ethan Hawke looking at a lot of screens. And unlike the historical-seeming Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper, Good Kill wasn’t made with the cooperation of the government. That’s not a surprise: this is the first big feature film to take on the U.S. drone program, which, although it’s been acknowledged by the President, is conducted mostly in secret. As of January, the Air Force reported that there were nearly 1,000 active-duty pilots for Predators and Reapers, flying some 65 24-hour combat air surveillance and intelligence patrols,more than double what was flown in 2008.

What it says about the drone program—in terms that are sometimes heavy-handed and obvious—isn’t pretty, but it’s roughly accurate. Drone missions have made grave mistakes. They have caused tragic collateral damage, including most recently, the accidental killing of hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. Operators are directed in some cases to kill people based on their behavior, as witnessed from 20,000 feet (and, while this isn’t in the film, their cell phones). They are targeting people who are sometimes doing nothing suspicious at the time of attack, though they must, as the White House puts it, “pose an imminent threat to the U.S.”According to the Wall Street Journal however, in 2013 President Obama “exempted the CIA from this rule in Pakistan,” where those hostages were killed.) Drone pilots go home everyday, reportedly psychologically and morally drained.

“I always wondered, how does that happen?” Niccol recalls thinking before he started working on the film a few years ago. “Who the hell is pushing the button? Where are they? Then you find out there are characters like Ethan’s character. They do this for 12 hours a day, and then go pick up their kids from soccer. What does it do to someone like that?”

“If we can’t be critical, we can’t have a real dialogue at all,” Hawke says.

Good Kill makes an effort to convey the psychological and ethical trauma of being a drone operator, sometimes in cartoonish or hyperbolic tones. Hawke’s character is clearly troubled by what he sees from his drone’s-eye-view, as are his co-pilot, played by Zoë Kravitz, and his boss, an Air Force lieutenant played by Bruce Greenwood. PTSD is implied; Hawke gulps down vodka, grows paranoid, and hits his wife. This isn’t like the other recent war movies.

“I have family members in the military, and I can imagine them thinking of [Good Kill] as overly critical,” Hawke says. “But if we can’t be critical, we can’t have a real dialogue at all.”

The sensitivity of the subject meant that the movie would be financed in Euros, says Niccol. Still, he and Hawke are at pains to emphasize that this is not an anti-American or anti-military film.

“Something happened after 9/11,” he says later. “There used to be movies all the time that were so critical. Oliver Stone made big, swashbuckling films, conspiracy and anti-government films. Now, everybody’s like, you gotta be ‘pro soldier’—”

Niccol cuts in: “This isn’t anti-soldier—it’s pro-humanity.”

Niccol and Hawke hope the film can spark a national conversation on the use of drones. They don’t expect any official response from the government, but what did the drone operators who advised the filmmakers think? They hadn’t had a chance to see it yet, Niccol says.

I was thinking specifically of Brandon Bryant, the former Air Force drone operator who has become a de facto spokesperson for what he describes as an invisible air force suffering from deep remorse over their kills, the bad ones and the good ones. A 2013 DoD study reported that drone operators can suffer from the same combat stress as aircraft pilots, including PTSD. Bryant says he was approached by the producers of Good Kill in 2013 and gave notes on an early script, but hasn’t heard from the filmmakers since then.

“Andrew Niccol took my story and warped it to his own,” says Bryant, who has seen the film. “They snubbed me and created a terrible film with no intelligence behind it.”

“All it is going to do as it stands,” Brandon Bryant says, “is make people who are in the service angry.”

Certainly there were moments in Good Kill that lacked subtlety and stretched credulity, including the commander’s persistent use of profanity, and the film’s arresting ending. Bryant says the filmmakers squandered an opportunity for more subtlety and realism. “They tried to make it too ‘Top Gun’ and that doesn’t exist in that world. Whatever they were trying to do missed its mark entirely, unless that was to make a subpar military propaganda film.”

Bryant says he fears the movie will be lost on its audiences. “All it is going to do as it stands,” he says, “is make people who are in the service angry. The people who associate themselves with being ‘grunts’ are going to be further wound up and ignorant about the whole mess. Kids who think that this is video gaming IRL are going to eat it up without actually realizing the true impact of what it does to the human mind and soul. And Americans are going to find it mildly entertaining at best and forgettable at its worst. It doesn’t allow people to question or care.”

Despite its Top Gun elements, Good Kill includes no Top Gun-style action: it aims to make the point, repeatedly, that the battlefield is now a mental state. The battlefieldextends to the container where Hawke and his colleagues take orders via speakerphone from a faceless and ruthless CIA (voiced by Peter Coyote), euphemistically referred to as “Christians in Action;” the battlefield is in the commander’s office, where Hawke worries about accidental deaths (“Drones aren’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re going everywhere,” the commander says with a get-used-to-it tone early on, which drones throughout the movie). The battlefield is in the bedroom and the bathroom.

There are no official numbers of drone deaths, but according to local reports, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that at least 2,887 people have been killed by drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and at least 456 of them were civilians. In lieu of government disclosures, Niccol says his primary sources were news reports, war logs released by Wikileaks, and interviews with former drone pilots. Unlike Gattaca, the realistic look of Good Kill relied on a “no-design” strategy that “had to look exactly the way the military had it.” Still, there were a few moments where I had to suspend my disbelief: in one instance, Hawke’s character reminisces about landing on an aircraft carrier, a la Top Gun, even though only the Navy, not the Air Force, lands planes on carriers. And the quality of the drone’s surveillance video often looks almost too good to be true, but it isn’t, says Niccol: he claims the technology has just advanced faster than we are allowed to know.

When he met with one drone operator, Hawke popped The Drone Question: “Is it like a video game?”

The operator replied: “‘It’s like the most boring video game in the history of the world. Imagine playing a game seven months, for something [that happens] for seven seconds, and you have to write a 40 page report for that seven seconds. It’s very strange.’”

“And you’re somehow falling in love with the people you’re targeting,” Niccol adds. “You call him a bad guy, but he might be a good dad. You’re waiting for just the right moment to take him out, but you’re learning a lot about him too.”

“Which is very different from what my grandfather was asked to do,” Hawke says, “which was to fly over Germany and drop some bombs and try to get out before they shot you down.”

Now, says Niccol, “there’s no one even shooting at you.”

(Speaking of Germany: while the secrecy of the drone program makes it hard to mount legal challenges against it, the family of one victim of strike in Yemen in 2012 is preparing a lawsuit there—home to Ramstein Air Base.)

The risk of the film—again, a war movie without action—mirrors the moral and psychological risk to drone pilots. Some have argued that PTSD, with its link to the sense of being under physical attack, may not be the accurate term for the psychological pain that comes from killing by drone. A new term, “moral injury,” aims to capture all the pain of killing someone without the sense of dignity, honor, or danger that has always been part of doing battle.

Mistakes and collateral damage aside—and there has been a lot—remotely executing even a “bad guy” isn’t easy. Hawke cites the case of young soldiers in the Civil War, who may have been trained in using their rifles but were not trained in killing other people. “A guy would stand on the front line–he didn’t want to run, but he didn’t want to kill anybody,” he says. “So he’d stand there and hold his rifle until he was shot. Most of these guys would shoot at the ground or shoot over.”

Drone pilots can be very young too. (Niccol mentions that some he spoke to would go home after work and play video games; he didn’t include this in the film because he thought it wouldn’t seem plausible.) And they’re not trained killers, like, say, Chris Kyle, the hero of American Sniper, who was, argues Aaron Bady, a kind of human drone—“a machine for killing without conscience. You might even describe him as ‘un-manned.’” (One proposed solution to the problem of responsibility involved using a Siri-like computer to fire the fatal missile, as a way of offloading some of the sense of guilt.)

In 2013, the Pentagon proposed a distinguished service medal to honor drone pilots, but the idea has been tabled for now, over protestations from within the armed services. At the start of the year, the Air Force doubled drone pilots’ monthly bonus to $1,200 in an effort to reduce attrition.

Niccol and Hawke aren’t completely opposed to drones, and the film makes an effort to prove some of their value: Drones provide an unprecedented kind of watchful eye over troops, and can carry out military bombings with a precision, perhaps, that previous weapons didn’t allow. “To say I’m anti-drone is like saying I’m anti-the internet,” says Niccol. “It’s a technology. What should be decided is, are we doing it responsibly?”

Film, they argue, can help ask that question and enumerating the costs too. “If you didn’t have all the great filmmaking and writing about the Vietnam war, people wouldn’t know what that is about,” says Hawke. “Without stories we can’t feel it, they can’t become tactile to us. We don’t become intimate with it.”

“I have a son turning 13,” he continues. “What’s this generation’s role going to be in this war? And what would it take for it to stop?”

The movie doesn’t resolve that or its own questions. A rogue move at the end—to be read as a signal of humanity in the midst of the virtual and the robotic—stretches the compromised ethics of the story and the seemingly never ending war into an even more pretzel-like shape. Hawke savors the ambiguities. “I’m kind of allergic to movies that claim to have an answer.”

Niccol smiles. “You must love my movies.”

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