Entertainment & Arts

Good Kill: Tackling the ethics of drone warfare on film

Ethan Hawke in Good Kill Image copyright Film company
Image caption Ethan Hawke's drone pilot begins to question his orders - and his job

Actor Ethan Hawke and director Andrew Niccol discuss their latest film, Good Kill, about an Air Force drone pilot who begins to question the ethics of his job.

The first time Hawke worked with Niccol, they made 1997 sci-fi film Gattaca. The second occasion, they made 2005's Lord of War, about an arms dealer with a conscience. Now they've made it a hat-trick, reuniting once again to tackle the timely issue of using drones in modern warfare.

Set in 2010, Good Kill sees Hawke play Air Force pilot Tom Egan, who spends eight hours a day fighting the Taliban. But instead of being out on the front line, he's in a Las Vegas bunker remotely dropping bombs in the Middle East as part of the US's War on Terror.

Distanced from close combat from the safety of his joystick control half a world away, when the civilian casualties start mounting up, Egan begins to question his orders - and his job.

Hawke and Niccol spoke to the BBC News website about the inspiration behind the film and the moral questions it raises.

Why did you decide to make this project now?

Andrew Niccol: Now is almost a few years too late. I could have made this film a few years ago because this war has been going on in Afghanistan for 13 years. It's stunning to me it's America's longest war and still counting - it beats Vietnam, the first Iraq war and World War Two.

It was all in response to 9/11 and I completely understand why we began it because that's where Bin Laden was. But it gets to a point where it's overkill. Are we ever going to leave that part of the planet? Are we really going to stay over the top of the Middle East forever?

Ethan Hawke: The troops are going to come out of Afghanistan, but the drones will still be there. It's not a question of right or wrong, or how I feel about it - it's the truth. This is the nature of warfare right now.

Do we want drones to be the international police? Is it a good idea? Is it creating more terror than stopping? They're valuable questions.

For me as an actor and a fan of storytelling, I get to play a character I've never seen on screen before. He's spending the bulk of the day fighting the Taliban; leaves work, picks up some eggs and orange juice, helps his son with his homework and fights with his wife about what TV show to watch. And then the next day does the same thing again.

This is a new situation we've never been in: Soldiers who take people's lives whose own life isn't in danger. A lot of these people go into the military because they have the mentality of a warrior. They want to put their life on the line for their beliefs to make people safe, but what does it mean when your life isn't on the line? It seems like the stuff of sci-fi but it's arrived.

Image copyright Film company
Image caption January Jones plays Ethan Hawke's wife in Good Kill

Did you intend to push a specific political agenda with this film?

Ethan Hawke: No, I'm allergic to that. We can't have a serious conversation about a drones strike unless people have more information. Most people don't know what a drone looks like, or how it's operated.

I learned a lot - I had no idea [the US] would strike a funeral or rescuers. There's a certain logic to doing it - you could say perhaps it is proportionate. Perhaps we're stopping more death than we're creating, but we are killing innocent people. Am I sure I want our soldiers doing that?

An interesting example is on Obama's third day in office he ordered a drone strike - it was surgical, but they had the wrong information and they murdered a family that had nothing to do with anything. When these tools are available accidents happen. It's ripe for dialogue.

I'm not in politics, I don't have an agenda for the audience, but I think it's a really interesting conversation. I don't think we should let our governments run willy-nilly and kill whoever and spy on whoever they want to without asking any questions.

Andrew Niccol: I'm not anti or pro, I'm just saying this is what is, and now you have that information perhaps it can provoke thought and conversation.

Image copyright Film company
Image caption The US military want computer gamers to join the Air Force because they are equipped with the dexterity and speed needed to operate a drone efficiently, like Ethan Hawke's character in Good Kill

Are all the events depicted in the film real?

Andrew Niccol: Every strike Tom does in the movie there is a precedent for, but his character is fictitious.

There were some things I didn't put in the movie because I thought they were too outrageous. I was told about drone pilots who were younger than Ethan's character - they would work with a joystick for 12 hours over Afghanistan, take out a target and go home to their apartment and play video games.

The military modelled the workstation on computer games because it's the joystick that's the easiest to use. They want gamers to join the Air Force because they're good and can manoeuvre a drone perfectly.

But how can they possibly separate playing one joystick game one moment, and then playing real war the next?

Good Kill is released in UK cinemas on 10 April.

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