US drone programme: 'Schizophrenia' comes to the big screen

Published April 3, 2015
A US Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport in Afghanistan. - AFP
A US Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport in Afghanistan. - AFP

PARIS: Nearly 29 years ago the movie “Top Gun" made US air warfare seem a glamorous adventure for maverick skyjocks. But today, of course, it's all about drones, which a new movie argues represent a wrenching tumble to earth both for their grounded pilots -- and for America's aspirations to be a morally just power.

“Good Kill” starring Ethan Hawke and made by Andrew Niccol, the New Zealand-born screenwriter-director-producer who directed “Gattaca” and wrote “The Truman Show”, doesn't aim to please the crowds in the cinema multiplexes, and seems destined for a limited run around the world after opening this month.

But, as Niccol told AFP in an interview in Paris this week, “I love to live the grey. Things are not black and white."

His movie emphasises the paradox of pilots in the US remotely controlling unmanned combat aircraft that can stay aloft for 24 hours over conflict zones thousands of kilometres (miles) away.

It also touches on the climbing civilian casualty toll from drones bombing wrongly identified targets -- a sensitive subject the US government tries to downplay.

Not anti-drone

“Good Kill” follows a former fighter pilot played by Hawke as he increasingly questions his duty and life while carrying out Afghanistan drone missions from military trailers parked on a base on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

Niccol says the “schizophrenia” of an at-home serviceman fighting a distant war prompted him to make the story.

“We've never asked a soldier to go and fight the Taliban for 12 hours and then go and pick up the kids from school,” he says.

Although most of the main characters criticise aspects of the drone warfare, Niccol says calling him anti-drone is “naive”.

He says he focused on the ambiguity of using the airborne weapons, and the impact they had on the people flying them remotely. More than once the movie highlights the godlike destructive power wielded by fallible pilots.

Ethan Hawke, with his military haircut and intense gaze, has a passing resemblance to Tom Cruise in his “Top Gun” role.

But Niccol demurs when asked whether he chose Hawke to subvert that enduring image of Cruise as a hotshot jet pilot.

Instead, he points out, Hawke is a regular in his movies, starring as a genetically underpar candidate trying to get through a selective astronaut academy in “Gattaca” and Interpol agent in “Lord of War”.

“What I love about him is that he's most incapable of doing something dishonest as an actor. So if he can't memorise a line it's probably because the line is bad. So I change the line."

He also joked that Hawke's wife is “very thankful, I think, that I make him get a haircut,” referring to the actor's normally freewheeling nature.

Outsider looking in

Niccol, who delights in being a long-term “Resident Alien” in the United States, says his outsider's perspective informs his movies.

“I could never write this story if I was American, you know? And most of my stories, to be honest: I couldn't make them if I was actually in the belly of the beast."

The 50-year-old filmmaker says he keeps coming back to technology-centred stories, but often with an approach that doesn't fit the Hollywood blockbuster mould, which is why films like “Good Kill” are relatively low budget.

“I tend to have expensive, unconventional ideas. And if you go to a studio with an expensive, conventional idea, that's cool. If you go in with an inexpensive, unconventional idea that's cool, too. But don't go in and put those two together: don't have an expensive, unconventional idea. It's always made my life hard."

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