Venice: Andrew Niccol’s Drone Warfare Pic ‘Good Kill’ Stirs Lido Debate

Andrew Niccol‘s Venice Competition title Good Kill has its World Premiere gala here tonight before heading to Toronto. It screened for press this morning to a mix of applause, and some boos. But reviews have thus far been generally positive for the story of an Air Force drone pilot (Ethan Hawke) who spends the day hitting targets halfway around the world from inside a metal cube on a Las Vegas air base before heading home each evening to his family. Hawke’s Tommy Egan, a pilot who did several tours in Iraq, has been grounded and assigned to effecting drone strikes under the seemingly arbitrary command of the CIA, which he questions with increasing desperation. Hawke has gotten strong notices, but one of the issues for audiences here seems to have been in initial reaction that the film is “too American.” That’s somewhat ironic since Niccol is a Kiwi and the movie is produced by Frenchman Nicolas Chartier’s Voltage Pictures.

A somewhat ambiguous ending, intended to let audiences decide the ramifications of and justifications for Egan’s final-frames actions, has been part of the discussion today. Producer Zev Foreman tells me that if audiences are reacting with opinon, “we’re doing our job.” But he bristles at the notion that this is solely an American story. “That’s a very small perspective,” he says. We talked about the fact that we were both expats during 9/11 and that locals, in his case in Rome, in my case in Paris, saw the attacks as an American issue. Ultimately, they affected the world.

Niccol, who has used war and surveillance as themes in some of his other films, told reporters that he was drawn to the project because of the “schizophrenic nature” of this kind of warfare. “We’ve never before had a soldier who basically goes to war for 12 hours and fights the Taliban and then goes home to his wife and kids.” Egan has difficulty relating to his family; wanting solely to get back in the air for real. He also grows more and more disillusioned with missions he’s being ordered to carry out from the ground. But speaking with reporters today, Niccol said he didn’t want the film to take a position. “I tried to walk a straight line because it’s not up to me to take sides. I’m just trying to shine some light — it’s not pro or anti, it just is. If anything, maybe it’s a cautionary tale.” However, he did allow, “(George) Orwell would be spinning in his grave if he could hear our justifications for what we do — the phrases that we use (like) ‘preemptive self defense,’ and, we’ve invented something called ‘proportionality’ which means that if you want to kill me badly enough, it’s okay that we kill everyone round me. That’s how they’ve invented something called ‘crowd killing,’ but they actually prefer to refer to it as ‘signature stike’ where if you look like a terrorist and you’re standing net to a terrorist, you’re a terrorist.”

Those terms are depicted and debated in the film which had no support from the military. “We did show the screenplay to the Department of Defense,” Niccol said, “and they politely declined to support the film.” Foreman added, “I think that they themselves are somewhat unsure how to talk about this issue. I don’t think the PR machine inside the DoD has figured out what their stance is.”

Hawke jumped in to say that politics are only the “exoskeleton” of the film. “The heart of the movie is the people who are being put in this situation.” Zoe Kravitz plays Hawkes’s podmate, Bruce Greenwood his supervisor, and January Jones his wife.

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