Netflix’s War Machine is a movie at war with itself. It wants to be a satire in the tradition of Dr. Strangelove but also a clear-eyed drama about America’s intractable situation in Afghanistan. It’s as if director/screenwriter David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, Rover) initially decided humor was the best way to get his point across but then felt too burdened by the depressing reality of the war to really laugh about it anymore. The chief victim of his indecision is the film’s producer and star Brad Pitt, whose cartoonish performance of a deluded United States General seems too big for the movie and at odds with the material. However, War Machine still manages to work as an insightful indictment of America’s collective and ongoing inability to properly adjust to the realities of modern warfare in Afghanistan, and how until we do the war will simply continue to chew up well-meaning, but stubborn leaders and spit them out.
The story is based on Michael Hastings’ 2012 nonfiction book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, which was itself adapted from Hastings’ own 2010 Rolling Stone Article “The Runaway General.” Hastings, who sadly died in a car wreck in 2013, spent a month on the ground with Stanley McChrystal, a decorated Army lifer newly appointed as the commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan. As Rolling Stone later noted, “While other embedded reporters were charmed by McChrystal’s bad-boy bravado and might have excused his insubordination as a joke, Hastings was determined to expose the recklessness of a man leading what Hastings believed to be a reckless war.”
McChrystal surrounded himself with Yes-Men cronies (played in the film by a collection of recognizable faces, most notably Anthony Michael Hall and Topher Grace), habitually ignored the advice of his superiors as well as our allies, arrogantly thought himself to always be the smartest man in the room (time and time again in the film Pitt is presented with a sobering and well-articulated rebuttal of his antiquated strategies, and each time he says some variation of “I understand that, but…”) and did nothing to combat the open insubordination his entourage showed toward anyone in President Obama’s administration. The fact that they were all stupid enough to allow a reporter (played in the film by Scott McNairy, who also serves as the narrator) to follow them around and chronicle their behavior is likely grounds for dismissal outright, but in the end it was the publication of “Runaway General” which did them in. Obama even cited the article in his public firing of McChrystal.
Even since then, Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B has been trying to turn this real-life story into a movie, promising, of course, to change some of the names (Pitt’s fictionalized version of McChrystal is named Glen McMahon) to guard against any kind of lawsuit. Plan B clearly wanted to do for Afghanistan what it did for the housing crisis in The Big Short, but this conflict is far harder to dramatize/satirize and less commercially viable. So, it wasn’t until Netflix and its bottomless pit of money came along that Plan B could find anyone to foot the proposed $60 million budget.
In the intervening years, a parade of Generals have replaced McChrystal in Afghanistan (first David Petraeus then John Allen then Joseph Dunford then…well, it keeps going for a while), and as of two weeks ago there was again talk of the U.S. pursuing a troop surge and counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, both hallmarks of McChrystal’s regrettable tenure. This has led Michôd to despair in interviews we have apparently learned nothing, a feeling he expresses more bluntly in the film by essentially turning the camera on us in the closing scene to ask why we focused so much in 2010 on the more scandalous aspects of the McChrystal firing and less on what his firing said about our failed foreign policies and military leaders.
Perhaps that’s why Michôd couldn’t quite go full-on Doctor Strangelove, couldn’t dot the periphery of the movie with some Afghanistan-equivalents of Hitler-saluting scientists or paranoid Generals instigating nuclear war because of the fluoride in our water. Perhaps the war feels too immediate to Michôd for full-blown satire, particularly as McMahon’s cartoonish intransigence results in multiple deaths.
So, the humor mostly derives from the obvious contrast of dropping a slightly more subdued version of Pitt’s Inglorious Bastards character into Lions for Lambs, or, to use another analogy, dropping a Patton throwback (only sleeps four hours a night, loves to try to rally the troops with big speeches, etc.) into modern warfare and watching him chafe under the bureaucracy from DC and elsewhere (his awkward attendance of a black tie dinner in Paris to curry political favor is a particular highlight), ongoing disagreements with allies and lack of traditional military objectives. McMahon becomes so desperate for a traditional combat victory that in the final act he recklessly spearheads a boneheaded campaign which leads to tragic results in a surprisingly somber sequence. There’s nothing to laugh at there nor should there be, yet the fact that we then have to watch McMahon counsel the family of the fallen creates an odd juxtaposition because we are watching a cartoon interact with something which seems far too real.
Of course, that might be the point. Michôd’s argument seems to be that with the slightest bit of exaggeration some of our military leaders easily resemble cartoon characters whose uniquely American sensibilities, career experiences, training and personalities make them incompatible with the realities of Afghanistan, and until we change our ways we are stuck with an assembly line of doomed leaders repeating the same mistakes and prolonging what is already the longest war in the country’s history. Make of that argument what you will. However, I don’t know that War Machine delivers this viewpoint as clearly or as convincingly as it could have, particularly since the film seems to be torn between satire, level-headed drama and sobering character study.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For a film which carries the tagline “We’re going to liberate the shit out of you” and features Brad Pitt in full-on buffoon mode, War Machine is surprisingly dour and clear-eyed in its critical assessment of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Too often, it feels like two different kinds of movies duking it out for supremacy, and as a result of that ongoing conflict the story drags more than it should and lacks either dramatic or comedic urgency. The insight director/writer David Michôd has to offer is intriguing, but his methods could use some work.