War Machine, 2017.
Written and Directed by David Michod.
Starring Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Anthony Michael Hall, RJ Cyler, Topher Grace, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, Emory Cohen, Meg Tilly, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Aymen Hamdouchi, Daniel Betts, Lakeith Stanfield, Nicholas Jones, Justin Rosniak, Josh Stewart, Kola Bokinni, Griffin Dunne, Pico Alexander, Derek Slow, Tilda Swinton, and Ben Kingsley.
An absurdist war story for our times, writer-director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) recreates a U.S. General’s roller-coaster rise and fall as part reality, part savage parody – raising the specter of just where the line between them lies today. His is an exploration of a born leader’s ultra-confident march right into the dark heart of folly. At the story’s core is Brad Pitt’s sly take on a successful, charismatic four-star general who leapt in like a rock star to command NATO forces in Afghanistan, only to be taken down by a journalist’s no-holds-barred exposé.
If all Afghanistan war films have left to say about the flaky endeavor is that it wasn’t a good idea and was mismanaged by everyone from presidents to political leaders to military generals, then it’s probably time storytellers realize that as much as possible has been mined from the premise. War Machine (directed by David Michod who is most known for The Rover and Animal Kingdom, and based on Michael Hastings’ novel The Operators)) stars Brad Pitt leading a group of military personnel in and around Afghanistan vainly attempting counterinsurgency, which is basically Americans trying their damnedest to convince the civilians of the country that they’re the good guys in the ongoing war and win their trust, rather than sitting idly by with the neutrals potentially joining the enemy.
General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt sounding like he’s been chain-smoking for 25 years and indulging a bit too much in portraying the satirical side of the leader’s non-defeatist, self-aggrandizing, overly confident personality) is surrounded by a team with each individual given a cliché specialized field (Topher Grace plays the publicity guy, RJ Cyler of the recent Power Rangers reboot is the token tech wizard, Anthony Michael Hall is the shortsighted and F-bomb happy brute ironically given the Director of Intelligence title, and so on), except no one supporting character is really given much material to work with or stands out. I mean, Topher Grace does, but that’s more because it’s impossible to get the distinguishable voice of Eric Foreman out of one’s head.
Instead, War Machine seems to abandon the concept of camaraderie and humorous banter (those looking for a military comedy will be somewhat disappointed as the movie surprisingly tends to lean on the more dramatic side of satire) to focus on General McMahon’s ups and downs. The script attempts to wrestle with his (and every general’s) true duty during war, his pride blocking rational thinking and the inner workings of handling the Afghanistan situation (a sizable section of the movie sees McMahon attempting to leverage former yet then President Obama into providing him with 40,000 more troops to accomplish what he feels needs to be done to win the war). Even Mrs. McMahon is implemented into the narrative during a visit to France, and while I admire the direction successfully presenting that Mr. McMahon’s passion and duty to the military has greatly strained their relationship, it’s hard to shake the feeling that David Michod (he also wrote the script) is taking the film into various directions without any real understanding of what it should be or what he wanted it to be.
The real killer in all of this is that Brad Pitt isn’t particularly very good in War Machine, delivering a performance so far into cartoonish military caricature that it’s tough to buy into the absurdist humor and satire being leveled at the whole disaster of the Afghanistan war. Oddly enough, the few attempts at comedy that are present (especially Ben Kingsley playing President Karzai as a buffoon more interested in hooking up his high-definition television than performing his duties, most likely because his wishes are already irrelevant in the presence of the American military) land, subsequently feeding the sensation that War Machine could have been great, and possibly even broke through the current generic trappings of Afghanistan war centered flicks, if David Michod had settled on a singular working tone.
And speaking of drastic tonal shifts, War Machine decides to give audiences a full on battle sequence towards the end (some notable names like The Revenant‘s Will Poulter appear here in combat gear and give serviceable performances) that authenticity and stellar direction aside, seems to be attempting to say something about the nature of who an enemy is (calling back to a much earlier conversation between General McMahon and a corporal soldier played by Lakeith Stanfield regarding the confusion in deciphering the difference), but in execution it just comes across as out of place. War Machine is an exercise in a film morphing into something else consistently every 30 minutes.
Brad Pitt aside (who once again misses the mark on his performance here), the acting along with a few heated conversations are enough to carry War Machine through its two-hour running time without ever feeling like too much of a slog. The fatal flaw here is that you can deduct all the movie has to say just from reading the title; the war machine will keep on spinning regardless of who succeeds or fails, and society likely won’t learn from their mistakes. Can we get something refreshing for this genre, please? Now War Dogs, that was an underrated step in the right direction
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★