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Andrew Niccol's 'Good Kill' looks at the lives of drone operators

The trailer for the Ethan Hawke drone film
The trailer for the Ethan Hawke drone film "Good Kill."
FilmTrailerZone (via YouTube)

Andrew Niccol is the writer, producer and director of "Good Kill," a new movie looking at the lives of military drone pilots. It's fictionalized, but heavily based on reality.

"I was just very interested in this new schizophrenia of warfare, where we're asking guys to go to war at home. What does that do to them? How do they cope with that? How do you fight the Taliban 12 hours a day by remote control, and then go home to the wife and kids?" Niccol says.

Niccol says he used ex-drone pilots to make the film authentic, educating himself in the process of making it.

"You see drone strike after drone strike in the press, and I thought, 'How does that work?' And when you find out how it works, it's very compelling. Because these guys, they operate — in one case in the movie — in a base outside of Las Vegas. And there's actually a very good reason for that: It's because the terrain outside of Las Vegas looks very much like Afghanistan. And so they train the drone pilots to fly over the mountains near Vegas, and then the next day they'll be fighting the Taliban 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan."

The movie deals with the disconnect of having pilots so far from the battlefield, with both a geographic and a psychological remove.

"It used to be, when we would go to war with a country, we'd actually go to the country. That doesn't happen anymore, and it's going to happen less and less. We're going to fight more remote-controlled wars."

Niccol says it's hard for drone pilots because there's no time for them to decompress.

"They have a 30-minute drive along the freeway, and now they're picking up their kids from soccer practice. And so, we've never asked soldiers to do that before, and it's taking a toll."

In the movie, Ethan Hawke says, "The most dangerous thing I do is drive home on the freeway." It's a movie about a group of soldiers who aren't principally in danger. It shapes Hawke's character in the movie, and it shaped the drone pilots Niccol interviewed.

"At one point, they were going to issue a medal for drone pilots, for drone operators, and there was such an outcry from the rest of the military, that they had to rescind that medal, because the rest of the armed forces said, 'No no no, medals are for valor and acts of courage, and a drone operator, they're in as much danger as you and I are right now.'"

Niccol says he thinks it ended up sending the wrong message to drone operators: that they get to make life and death decisions, but that they're not worthy of being recognized.

In a 2011 report from the Air Force, a mental health survey showed 42 percent of drone pilots reporting they suffered moderate to high stress, while 20 percent reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. A later study showed the same levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts as traditional air combat crews.

"A drone pilot drops their ordnance, and they watch. And they will do what they call damage assessment, which is actually counting the dead, and we have never asked our pilots or soldiers to do that."

Drone pilots have also had to deal with the emotional aftermath of hitting the wrong targets.

"As hard as it is for us to imagine, it seems quite well documented that we have struck funerals, and we have struck first responders. There's a good reason there's a lot of mistaken identity, because in that region of the world, one way you celebrate is to fire your gun up in the air. From a drone's point of view, they look like terrorists."

The film's drone footage is modeled after footage released by Wikileaks. That footage is less sharp than what's shown in the film, but that's due to degradation over several generations of video, Niccol says. The video shown in the film is actually degraded in order to make it seem plausible to audiences, but Niccol says the pilots actually do see high resolution video.

The producers of the film approached the Department of Defense with the script, Niccol says, but they decided not to officially participate in "Good Kill."

"What I'm telling is an uncomfortable truth, and we're right in the thick of it right now, because drone strikes are happening today. You can see why the military wouldn't necessarily want to be seen as endorsing any movie, because it's just too sensitive right now."

Niccol says that what he hopes audiences take away is some education, shedding a light on what the drone program is doing.

"Whether you think that you're an advocate of the drone program or an opponent, I think we should be more informed about what's being done."

"Good Kill" is in theaters now.

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