“War Machine” (2017)
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director-screenwriter: David Michod
Based on the book “The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” by Michael Hastings
Featuring: Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Anthony Hayes, Topher Grace, Will Poulter, Tilda Swinton and Ben Kingsley
Gen. Glen McMahon: [to the group of marines] I’ve spent the last week or so talking to guys who I would call middle management, but you boys are at the coal face. After all the blah blah blah, *you* boys are actually where it happens. I’d go so far as to say you boys are the only thing that counts. If it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen, end of story. [to Billy, who raises his hand]
Gen. Glen McMahon: Yes son?
Cpl. Billy Cole: If what doesn’t happen, sir?
Gen. Glen McMahon: *It*, son.
Cpl. Billy Cole: Okay, thank you, sir.
Gen. Glen McMahon: Does anyone here know what “it” is? Anyone? [silence]
Gen. Glen McMahon: *Any* one? [points to Ricky who’s raised his hand]
Ricky Ortega: To- uh, secure the area, sir? To protect the people from the enemy so they can go about building their lives.
Gen. Glen McMahon: Okay. O-kay. Thank you, Sarge.
Cpl. Billy Cole: Okay, but I can’t tell the difference between the people and the enemy. They all look alike to me. I’m sure they’re the same people, sir.
Australian director David Michod has directed two cracker films, both set in Australia, both featuring some very impressive casts, those being “Animal Kingdom” (2010), nominated for an Oscar, as well as the post apocalyptic film “The Rover” (2014) with Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce. Now comes a Netflix original movie, produced and starring Brad Pitt, playing semi-fictionalized General Glen McMahon. Going into this movie I am sure that the tone and feeling that both producer and director were going for was a pastiche of wartime Generals and what they have to deal with in terms of the politics versus the actual fighting of a war. The other genre that they wanted was to nail, I am sure is a satire of the behavior of the top brass as well as the top people in Afghanistan, in particular President Karzai – however the film really does fail to deliver on these promises, it ends up being stranded in something of a no mans land – a comedy and a drama, with some war thrown in for good measure. Such a shame when you have the source material (The novel The Operators) as well the team who were behind this film – also a bit of a letdown for Netflix, not that this will even slow them down.
The premise of the movie is set around a successful, charismatic four-star general, Glenn McMahon (Brad Pitt), who leaps in like a rock star to command NATO forces in Afghanistan, only to be taken down by a journalist’s (Scoot McNairy) no-holds-barred exposé of him as well as his ‘team’. The movie is based on Michael Hastings’ book The Operators, which was based on a Rolling Stone article that is directly referenced within the movie.
The narrative of the film is extremely linear with a cause and effect plot that is a little too methodical for me, which means the story is formulaic to a fault. Another unfortunate narrative device is the use of voice over to explain what’s going on in almost every aspect of the movie, which I find jarring to the nth degree. Why must I know every aspect of every characters foibles or quirks, in a satire these things should be left up to the viewer, that is part of what makes a great satire in the mold of “M*A*S*H” (1970), or “Three Kings” (1999) to name just a couple. Both of these movies have at least one thing in common and that is a strong director who over a career has shown the ability to identify strongly with an understanding of what makes narrative film different and understandable by viewers.
Michod, with this project has the advantage of two things going in, a company like Netflix who has given him a free reign to direct and write an adaptation that he feels is the best, and a producer and star Pitt who has given him his full support. In one way they have succeeded is in the casting that goes extremely deep, with actors that are supremely talented and take to their roles like true professionals. The bad news first then, that is that Pitt has chosen an idiosyncratic way to play the General (based on real life General McChrystal – nothing like the characterization by Pitt here) which while on first glance seems humorous and original, after two hours becomes nothing more than a tic as well as quite annoying, On the other hand the rest of the cast is excellent led by co-star Anthony Michal Hall as another General who is McMahon’s aid and chief confidant, he plays it as real as you can imagine someone in his position would be, powerful but not all powerful, unlike his former classmate.
There is no doubt that there is some commentary about not only war, but also war in the wasteland that is Afghanistan which has led many countries to leave with their tails between their legs – something that will eventually happen to the US. What General McMahon has an answer for which he shares on his ill fated trip to Europe is that violence is not the answer, understanding is, as well as the ability to relate to the people within the country – when you kill an insurgent you create more terrorists who want to kill you at home and abroad. It’s a sad state of affairs that the end of the film sees two very different Generals, the last one is the answer that you would expect – I will leave the explanation to the viewer to discover in the closing moments of the film – it is priceless and typical.
It is no secret discovering that the hope President Obama had for General McMahon was that he would help with the war in Afghanistan but of course he ends up being fired because of an expose that was written by a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. No matter if you think this dismissal was fair or not, the movie makes it pretty clear that the General was out of his depth. In my opinion what happened in Europe that led to the dismissal, the bad mouthing of President Obama and VP Joe Biden as well the drinking was not that big of a deal but of course in the court of public opinion suddenly puritanism takes hold, there must be a sacrifice – in this case its General McMahon – oh well it makes for a good story – or it should have anyway.
This movie is not bad it just doesn’t complete what it was made to do, that is to create a knowing satire of not only the war in Afghanistan but the military as well as the politicians, it misses the mark by a little but ultimately it may as well be a lot. This film is worth a watch just for the supporting cast as well as the fact that Netflix really went for it with this film handing the reigns over to relative newcomer Michod as well as Pitt’s own production company (coming off a Best Picture win at this years Academy Awards). If you want something to keep you occupied for a few hours one cold week night this is the movie for you.
“War Machine” is currently streaming on Netflix.