Toronto: First Controversial Drone Movie Strikes, Questions U.S. Policy

Lorey Sebastian

'Good Kill' is making its world premiere at Venice Film Festival before heading for Toronto

The first movie examining the morality of drone warfare has arrived and it's sure to add fuel to the debate over the growing use of the controversial technology by the Obama administration and the concern that too many innocent civilians are being killed.

Andrew Niccol's Good Kill, starring Ethan Hawke as a troubled U.S. Air Force pilot grappling with the ethical consequences of attacking from afar, makes its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival Sept. 5 before playing at the Toronto Film Festival Sept. 9.

Good Kill hits the bigscreen just as another drone movie, Eye in the Sky, prepares to start shooting Sept. 10 in South Africa. That film, directed by Gavin Hood and produced by Colin Firth, sports a ensemble cast led by Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Barkhad Abdi. Eye in the Sky, from Entertainment One, is larger in scope and involves both the U.S. and British governments.

Both films, made outside the Hollywood studio system, come as ISIS continues to retaliate against the U.S. for airstrikes launched by drones and fighter jets, beheading a second hostage, American journalist Steven Sotloff.

Good Kill, from Voltage Pictures, home of Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, takes a sometimes searing look at the CIA's drone program in Afghanistan. The movie stars January Jones as the wife of Hawke's character, while Zoe Kravitz plays an officer who questions the killing of innocent bystanders during CIA-ordered operations.

Niccol said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he tried to be as "evenhanded" as possible, but ultimately believes drones could lead to "endless" war despite the technology's obvious advantages in targeting groups such as ISIS. "After 9/11, we went into some sort of overkill mode, which I completely understand. But we also have to ask ourselves a question, right now, if every time we kill on terrorist, we're creating 10 more. Is it counter productive?"

"What drew me to make the movie was the schizophrenia of this kind of warfare," said Niccol, who also made The Host and Gattaca. "We're not going into the country. And that's made war easier, and cheaper. It's cheaper not just in military costs, but also in public approval. It's easier for the public to buy into it when there are no boots on the ground and nobody's coming back in a body bag."  

Good Kill hopes to find a U.S. distribution deal out of Toronto, meaning it could potentially be released this year.

Eye in the Sky is aiming for a 2015 release. EOne will distribute the film in its key territories, including the U.K. Elsewhere, the film has been snapped up by independent foreign distributors (to date, it doesn't have a U.S. berth).

Xavier Marchand, president of production for EOne, brought in Eye in the Sky after Hood sent him the script.

"It's a dramatic war thriller about collateral damage, and provides real insight into the decision-making process that leads to a drone attack," Marchand says. "In our movie, there are the drones that fire hellfire missiles, and very tiny drones that imitate insects and can fly into terrorist compounds and spy on them."

Marchand and Voltage president of production Zev Foreman agree that drone movies are inherently controversial, considering the subject matter.

In terms of partisan politics, Foreman doesn't think Republicans will object to Good Kill.

"The truth is, the current democratic administration is doing more with the drone program than any conservative administration has done. Instead of being a Democratic-Republican issue, it is about the future of war and how we plan on waging them," said Foreman. "I think it will be hard for any president to object to drones because in the end, they do save American lives. You aren’t putting as many people at risk, but the ramifications are far-reaching."

Some in Hollywood have been vocal in their criticism of President Obama's use of drone strikes.

Brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, who together directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have said the Marvel blockbuster was about drones and the president's "kill list."

"[Marvel] said they wanted to make a political thriller," Joe Russo told Mother Jones while promoting the film. "So we said if you want to make a political thriller, all the great political thrillers have very current issues in them that reflect the anxiety of the audience...That gives it an immediacy, it makes it relevant. So [Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined. And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list, preemptive technology."

And in an opinion piece Oliver Stone co-wrote for USA Today, he called the drone strike program Obama's signature foreign policy initiative. "Obama quickly became the world's leading drone warrior,  employing more predator drones in his first nine-and-a-half months in office than Bush had in the previous three years. The results are mixed. He managed to decapitate much of al-Qaeda's leadership, but these attacks fueled jihadist recruitment."

Tatiana Siegel contributed to this report.