Under the Radar

Ethan Hawke Talks Drone Warfare in 'Good Kill'



Good Kill (opening in theaters this week) revisits the peak drone warfare year of 2010, with Ethan Hawke playing Major Thomas Egan, a fighter pilot who finds himself repurposed as a drone pilot in the Nevada desert.

There's problems with the family, ethical dilemmas once the CIA starts picking targets and a lot of frustration with remote flying from a pilot who misses the experience. Andrew Niccol wrote and directed the movie and he previously worked with Hawke on the sci-fi classic Gattaca.

We've got a clip from the film and Ethan Hawke took the time to speak to Military.com about the surreal nature of remote warfare.


"Good Kill" explores how technology’s expanding role is changing the military experience. How did you come to this movie?

I first met Andrew Niccol on the film Gattaca about 17 years ago and that was another film that really relates to the idea of when technology advances and asks us ethical questions that we're not really prepared for yet. That one being genetic engineering.

In this movie we’re looking at drone warfare. If you released Good Kill when we released Gattaca, it would seem just as much of a science fiction film as Gattaca does. I was very interested in the story because I've been reading about drone strikes in the paper, but I didn’t have any vocabulary for what it looked like or how it happened. I was hypnotized by the story of this former fighter pilot who did all these tours and now he was living in the suburbs outside Vegas. There's something that as an actor, you know as a character study, that that was a really interesting story to me.

My grandfather was in the Air Force. He was a tail gunner in a B-52 in World War II. The modern Air Force seems to be in a kind of philosophical crisis about these unmanned aircraft. It’s such an unbelievable new tool in the arsenal, but it raises a lot of questions that I don’t know that we all have an answer at the ready.


There are a lot of people predicting a world where we don’t just have drones, but we’ll have mechanical troops fighting on the battlefield.

Not just in the military, but in all aspects of our daily lives, we're watching things that we remember from science fiction movies becoming reality. I mean it's still strange for me to Skype with my family all the time and to remember how as a little kid that was something out of the Jetsons. So much of our lives has been depersonalized and the messy work of intimacy of life is being avoided. And that’s certainly being manifested in warfare, as it is everywhere else. But in the warfare ways it’s the most captivating to our imagination.


Did you and Andrew Niccol consult with drone pilots while making the film?

We had a couple of former drone pilots as our advisors and they were super helpful. For the most part, active duty guys are not interested in sharing their feelings about missions they were in. I don’t know that they’ve really processed their feelings about it. Our advisors were really helpful to us, mostly just to get the details right. You don’t want to make a movie like this and get the details egregiously wrong, undermine the whole effort.

You say that active duty guys don’t want to share their feelings. Talk about how that informed this part.

The challenge of this movie is just that it's largely a silent performance. This is a guy who doesn’t like the way he's thinking. He doesn’t like the thoughts he's having and he doesn’t want to speak and he's trying to drown it away with alcohol and being busy. It’s a unique challenge as a performer: you try to understand a character’s thought process when they aren’t speaking and simultaneously also make that clear to the audience.

One of my favorite performances when I was younger was Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. If you watch that movie, it's largely a silent film. Just him out in the wilderness going through different things. In a strange way, I was inspired by that movie.

Tommy Egan is a guy who is so deeply and profoundly lonely. And you see he's grieving. He's grieving the loss of flying. His issues are not political and his issues are not ethical. He missed flying. He misses what he was trained to do. There's a romance to the air in aviation and a lot of young men and women grow up really dreaming about it. He was just grieving the death of that dream.

One of the best things in the movie is Tommy’s car.

Thanks. I love that car too. It's funny, I had this idea that my character had wanted to become a pilot after seeing Top Gun, because when that movie came out, it was really ripe for my 16-year-old psyche. And I imagine that Tommy Egan was trying to have the same car as Maverick's, a black Firebird. I think it was a '68. I kind of wanted the production to give me that car as a gift at the end, but they didn’t and I'm still a little grouchy about it. I think they really should have.


You said before that "Good Kill" would’ve seem like a science fiction film back in the ‘90s when you made "Gattaca."

The look in the movie really does feel like science fiction. I think a lot of us are feeling that our world is all starting to feel like that. In actuality, the film is already a period piece. It's set in 2010 when these strikes were at their highest escalation point.

There's just something kind of surreal about it, starting with the fact they wear flight suits. There are a lot of questions that this program brings up because it's unquestionably, wildly effective. There’s an ability to make precision attacks, an ability to protect our troops and its ability to gather information is just unprecedented. With this great weapon comes great responsibility. What's the future? What are people gonna say about this movie in 25 years? Where will drones be? Are there going to be UAV tanks and will that be the way we fight our wars? It will be so interesting to see how all this stuff goes.

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