By Michael Roddy
VENICE (Reuters) - Ethan Hawke stars as a drone pilot near Las Vegas who has a mental breakdown while killing targets 7,000 miles away (11,000 km) in "Good Kill", a Venice Film Festival entry shown on Friday and meant to spark debate.
Stating at the outset it is "based on actual events", the film directed by New Zealand-born Andrew Niccol, whose 1997 gene-manipulation movie "Gattaca" was nominated for an Oscar, takes place at a drone operations base in 2010.
"The thing that drew me to the project was the schizophrenic nature of this warfare - it's a new type of warfare," Niccol said at a post-screening news conference.
"We've never had a type of war before where a soldier like Ethan Hawke's character basically goes to war for 12 hours, fights the Taliban and goes home to his wife and kids and is with them for 12 hours," he said.
"That's what kind of drew me to the story."
He said the producers of what he said was the first fictional feature film about drone warfare sought the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Defense in making the movie, but this was declined.
"As far as getting it made, there were challenges because it's very difficult to make a military movie with no support from the military," he said.
"I hope it provokes a lot of thought and discussion, and as I said, I think it's a cautionary tale so we'll think about where we're going with this drone program," he added.
Las Vegas with its casinos and neon provides a glitzy contrast to the stark world of mud huts and desert landscape that the drone operators see through their operating screens.
When they finish work, they return to houses in orderly suburban developments, a world away from the sprawling Afghan towns and villages that their drone missiles are attacking.
Hawke said the proximity to Las Vegas, plus a scene in which the drone team meets up in a casino for drinks, underscored the theme that the drone operators and their superiors were sitting "in the city of sin passing judgment on the rest of the world".
Hawke's character Major Thomas Egan, a former fighter pilot who has been recruited to bring his flight experience to the drone team, is one of the most skilled operators.
In one of the first scenes, he uses that experience to choose precisely the right moment to fire and destroy a target, after which he and the others in the cramped metal operations room proclaim it as a "good kill".
But Egan is troubled about "collateral damage" - meaning civilians - who are killed in the attacks.
His misgivings grow tenfold when the Central Intelligence Agency assumes overall control of his team and begins ordering follow-up strikes minutes after a first missile has struck, thus ensuring that rescuers are killed.
The ramped-up killings of civilians causes him to drink heavily and his marriage suffers in what Hawke said was an extremely disorienting style of warfare.
"He's fighting the Taliban and in the afternoon he's picking his kids up from school," he said. "It creates a chaos in his mind".
At the same time, Egan feels his skills as a fighter pilot are being supplanted by people whose talents lie in playing video games. Flying a drone is like a video game except, as his superior in the film points out: "Make no mistake about it, this is killing."
Niccol said his film was not intended to be pro or anti-war, but remarked that the language the drone operators use, with phrases such as "pre-emptive self-defense" for attacking first, would have "1984" author George Orwell spinning in his grave.
(This story has been refiled to revise subject matter of director's earlier film in paragraph two)
(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Tom Heneghan)