Sunday, October 18, 2015

Remote controlled

How would warriors of the past done with their CO riding them all day?
Andrew Niccol (creator of the airless Gattaca) is a bloodless sort of filmmaker, which makes him either the best or the worst person to guide Good Kill (2015), a movie about the toll the drone war puts on the people conducting it.

How to explain? Well, for example, there's that damned Peter Coyote, our modern-day Alexander Scourby, an actor who sounds so inhumanly good he is instantly unbelievable. You know Peter Coyote, he's the guy you that makes you think "I thought Henry Fonda was dead" when you hear his voice-over work.  He was even featured on-camera as the announcer at the Oscars.  As a former counter-cultural figure, he once was an avatar of authentic independence and quirkiness.  Now he is the simulacrum of those American qualities.

In Good Kill the voice of Peter Coyote is employed with implicit satirical intent as the voice of the CIA, telling military personnel who to blow up and when, regardless of the violation of military rules of engagement.  But Coyote does not sound like a Man Who Knows.  His authenticity has been sanded off.  He sounds like what he his, an experienced actor who has recorded his lines very well. Given this is about an artificial remote-control war, perhaps that is the intent.  But the result is that all the scenes in which his character, code-named "Langley" (some code), appears are slack, lacking tension, suspense or really any interest after his first appearance.

You can't critique slickness and artificiality unless you have something to compare it to, and Good Kill lacks any actual human behavior to form a critical baseline.  Ethan Hawke is an impossible Boy Scout.  Bruce Greenwood plays the same gruff and lovable CO that we've seen in the movies since Ward Bond's heyday.  January Jones plays an empty-headed blonde wife.  Zoe Kravitz is a Latina soldier, so she is disciplined, yet spicy.

Doesn't anybody write second drafts anymore?

The idea for this film was so good, that it's a shame that this placeholder film had to be first.  To its credit, it tries to be fair.  It is not an extreme liberal anti-war diatribe.  Even the unreflective aggressive military types are given time and space to be right.  Bruce Greenwood's character points out toward the end that if we walk away from this war, the enemy won't.

But Good Kill is constantly cheating.  [Spoiler Alert]  Defying orders, Ethan Hawke takes aim at a terrorist fighter not on the target list, but whom he has seen raping a virtuous mother.  At the last moment, the woman steps into the kill zone and Hawke believes he has killed rapist and victim at once.  That is a smart story idea about going out on your own without support, without preparing, without a rationale, just operating on emotion, and the terrible toll rash action can have, even if acting for the best reasons.  But then the film does the old Disney switch (they've been doing this since The Jungle Book) and hurray!  the woman is not dead, but just knocked down by the impact of the blast, and Hawke was right all the time.

Well, that (a) settles nothing morally; (b) is super-phony and (c) smug.  A hat trick of bad storytelling.

In similar fashion, Hawke has to agonize for perhaps minutes about losing his airhead civilian wife but attracting the romantic interest of the smart female officer who sits next to him all day.  Introduce problem -- solve it conveniently within minutes.

I'm no fan of Syd Field, but are we going to complete ignore his observations?

Maybe the best thing we can do if we want to contemplate the danger of remote-control war is not to make a new movie, but just take another look at Dr. Strangelove.  [Confession -- when in doubt I always watch Dr. Strangelove.]

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