'War Machine': Film Review

It takes a while, but this machine finally works.
5/22/2017

Brad Pitt plays a General McChrystal-like figure in David Michod's satirical war film, co-starring Ben Kingsley and Tilda Swinton.

The latest addition to the gallery of darkly comic films designed to make the case for the absurdity of war, War Machine has trouble maintaining a steady tone, but its climactic, sobering assault ultimately hits the target. In his desire to simultaneously portray and mock the authority figures in charge of the American war effort in Afghanistan (now the longest armed conflict in American history), writer-director David Michod is clearly trying to channel the Stanley Kubrick of Dr. Strangelove, as well as other satiric works like M*A*S*H, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, Three Kings and Wag the Dog. Despite its troublesomely inconsistent tone, this Netflix presentation starring and co-produced by Brad Pitt, which will premiere Friday in theaters as well as on home screens, still discharges sufficient firepower to keep viewers pinned to their chairs.

After his striking debut with the ferocious Australian gangster tale Animal Kingdom and the bleak dystopian action drama The Rover, Michod employs his biggest canvas yet on behalf of this adaptation of the late Michael Hastings' stinging 2012 book, The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan. And how could the result be anything but a head-shaking lament for the way the best and the brightest, once again, think they have the answer for how to win a counterinsurgency war against enemies who aren't going anywhere, while everyone knows the occupiers will one day pack up their tents and head home?

As have some of his august directorial forebears, Michod works in a muscular, vigorous style that attempts to merge black comedy with grim and violent realism. The former is rather too broadly insisted upon at the outset by the borderline outlandish smirking of Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a Yale-educated, medal-festooned veteran who assures one and all that, after eight years of American involvement in the country, “We'll win this thing!” Yee-haw! Yes, sir! Right away, sir!

The way a platinum-haired, ultra-buff Pitt plays him, McMahon comes off as something of a freak at first, a man who runs seven miles before breakfast, barely sleeps and insists that the U.S. will ultimately prevail, not thanks to immense firepower, but because of the “unassailable power of our ideals.” Although President Barack Obama has already stated that no more troops will be sent into the godforsaken conflict, McMahon insists upon 40,000 to do the job. The number the general eventually gets is a lot closer to his than to the president's.

It helps to know that McMahon is all-but-in-name the very same as the outspoken four-star General Stanley A. McChrystal, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009-10 until he was fired by Obama. First things first: McChrystal looks nothing like Brad Pitt. Second, fictionalizing a character you're deriding helps avoids lawsuits. But it's worth pondering whether Michod was constrained in perhaps less visible ways by a need to adhere to some degree to the truth of actual events, while the writers and directors of the war satires mentioned earlier were not, by virtue of their thoroughly fictional characters and stories.

Whatever the case, Pitt initially overdoes the man's snide and cocky attitude; either that, or Michod fails to adequately match the tone of his storytelling to the actor's performance. Either way, the director at times leaves his star (and producer) out there high and dry. As a result, even though the early going effectively plunges the viewer right into the hubristic mindset the general customarily projects, the film's wavelength is initially hard to pin down.

Surrounding the boss is a full supply of sycophants and yes-men, most of whom are a hair too ridiculous at first to be fully credible as the most trusted aides of such an accomplished figure: There's personal assistant Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen), marketing contractor Matt Little (Topher Grace), intel officer and the boss' lone contemporary Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall) and security guy Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes), among numerous others.

To everyone's astonishment, the general announces that the first and main thrust of his battle plan will be to “turn things around” in the Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold where there's no known resistance; it's the toughest corner of the country. Well, okay, his subordinates all figure, the good general must know something they don't. He meets with Afghan President Karzai, who's played by Ben Kingsley in such a broadly farcical manner that it looks like he's channeling John Belushi. Karzai has seen and heard it all from the Americans a million times before; there's no solution here, his attitude suggests, so he's just going to take the money and run.

But after a lot of revving its engines and sometimes sputtering smoke, War Machine finally begins running on all cylinders. A spin through European capitals not only allows the general some rare time with his outwardly supportive wife (Meg Tilly) but provides sidelines on life among the top brass not normally dramatized, such as the awkward state dinners in edifices built by and for royalty — and, especially, a humorously dismaying interlude in which McMahon is tremendously inconvenienced and made to wait by Obama before being rudely snubbed by him. It's the sort of wonderful detail you never read about in the news.

During the continental stay, the general also holds a news conference, at which he's grilled and drilled by a skeptical German (Tilda Swinton, in just the one, highly effective scene). After all the wheel-spinning in Europe, it could almost come as a relief to be back on home ground, so to speak, in Afghanistan, where the general immediately announces it's time to move in.

It's here, finally, that the film entirely clicks. With Michod framing and editing the action superbly, the soldiers' entry into a seemingly emptied-out town is tense and creepy. There are casualties, platitudes are dispensed, but the locals just want the Americans to leave.

And for McMahon, it all comes apart. As McChrystal did in real life, the man says too much, deriding Obama to a Rolling Stone reporter, and is canned after Hastings' inflammatory article “The Runaway General” appears in July 2010. Both the general and the president get to move on, but what's left behind is yet another frustrating, ill-advised and still-unresolved military adventure.

The film's scabrous, sometimes-arch, other times spot-on critique ultimately comes together in an effective finale that retroactively puts a better light on the entire film than might have seemed possible during some of the earlier, rougher moments. There's also constant pleasure to be taken from the way the film was made; it's rough and bold, great to look at (cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is in top form) and enhanced by a varied, resourcefully thought-out soundtrack.

And, when all is said and done, it's impossible to think of anyone as good as Pitt to play the off-the-leash general.

Production: Plan B Entertainment
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Brad Pitt, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, Scott McNairy, Will Poulter, Alan Ruck, Lakeith Stanfield, Josh Stewart, Meg Tilly, Tilda Swinton, Ben Kingsley, Griffin Dunne
Director-screenwriter: David Michod, based on the book
The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings
Producers
: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Ted Sarandos, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: James W. Skotchdopole, Pauline Fischer, Sarah Bowen, Sarah Esberg
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Jo Ford
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Editor: Peter Sciberras
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Casting: Francine Maisler

122 minutes

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