VENICE, Italy (AP) — It's such a banal word: drones.
Don't be fooled. Unmanned aerial vehicles have changed the way wars are fought, turning some forms of combat into a computer game with flesh-and-blood victims.
The ethical cost to a nation and the emotional toll on individuals of America's new weaponry are explored in "Good Kill," a sobering 21st-century riposte to "Top Gun" that stars Ethan Hawke as a former combat pilot reassigned to fly missions in Afghanistan from the safety of a trailer in the Nevada desert.
"I'm always interested in how humanity and technology intersect," said the film's writer-director, Andrew Niccol .
The New Zealand-born filmmaker depicted one sort of high-tech dystopia in 1997 sci-fi movie "Gattaca." In "Good Kill," he explores the implications of waging war while staying home, a development that — for the drone operators — has blurred the border between front line and home.
The film, which has its world premiere Friday at the Venice Film Festival, suggests that the ability to kill from thousands of miles away is profoundly disorienting.
"I feel like a coward every day," says Hawke's character, Maj. Thomas Egan , a veteran of several tours of duty as the pilot of an F-16.
Now grounded, he's adrift, drinking too much and arguing with his wife, played by January Jones. When a convenience-store clerk asks how his day went, Egan says: "I blew up six Taliban ... and now I'm going home to barbecue." The clerk doesn't believe him; the film suggests many Americans are oblivious to the reality of drone warfare.
Niccol said former drone pilots he interviewed felt ashamed, like Egan, to be waging a war without any personal risk, but still suffered from the emotional strain of combat.
"You've got shell shock but you're thousands of miles from the shell," the director said during an interview in Venice.
The film gives insights into a largely hidden world, revealing that young drone pilots are recruited for their skill as gamers, and train on a console modeled on the Xbox.
"I was told that some of them would fly a mission, go back to their little apartment in Las Vegas, and play video games," the director said. "I don't know how you separate that anymore."
One of 20 films competing for the festival's Golden Lion, "Good Kill" is a claustrophobic tale, played out inside the trucks where Egan and his team — including Bruce Greenwood as a pragmatic commander and Zoe Kravitz as a skeptical young volunteer — conduct surveillance missions and airstrikes on orders of the militarily and, with less enthusiasm, the CIA.
In their down time, the characters thrash out the ethical issues: Is it justifiable to kill innocents when targeting a terrorist? Is it acceptable not to intervene against atrocities if it's not part of the mission?
The director said he saw the film was "a cautionary tale in some ways, of what you can do and maybe shouldn't."
He avoided coming down for or against the use of drones.
"I have no answers," he said. "There are great things about the drone program. These things are really precise. If you hit the right house, that missile's going to go there. The question is, are you hitting the right house?
"Are we going to have an armed policeman over this part of the world forever? Because that's what we can do and that's what we are doing. When the troops eventually pull out of Afghanistan, the drones aren't going to leave."
The film relies on Hawke's flinty expression and thousand-yard stare to convey much of Egan's inner turmoil. Niccol said the actor, whom he directed in "Gattaca" and arms-trade drama "Lord of War," was perfect for the role.
"I've cast him as an astronaut, an Interpol agent and now a fighter pilot," Niccol said. "He wouldn't last five minutes in the military, but I see him as this figure of authority."