NEW YORK — For the last several years, Amazon and Netflix have been engaged in a pitched Hollywood battle, rolling out high-end content in the fight for streaming supremacy.
Now that conflict is about to take a more literal turn. The studios are releasing two war films that embody their deep but differing film objectives: Doug Liman’s “The Wall” comes from Amazon Studios and arrives in some 400 theaters this weekend, while David Michod’s “War Machine” is available simultaneously on Netflix and in just a few theaters in Los Angeles and New York on May 26.
Though the timing is coincidental, their release in such quick succession highlights telling contrasts.
“The Wall” offers a ground-level view of military conflict, as a sniper in Iraq (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) takes refuge from a cagey enemy behind a crumbling barrier. The film is a sand-in-your-mouth experience centering on the realities of 21st century American warfare.
“War Machine” is a thinly fictionalized story of the fired U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Brad Pitt). Based on Michael Hastings’ book “The Operators,” it’s a view from the top of the military chain as officers wage a conflict they can’t bear to lose but will never win. The film asks pointed questions about the wisdom of modern war, particularly of the counter-insurgent variety.
The movies are as different as their studios. But together, they represent either proof for the importance of both companies at this moment of intense Hollywood competition or an unusually unambiguous test case for their divergent business strategies — Amazon embraces Hollywood’s traditional theatrical windows; Netflix does not — and even their respective filmmaking approaches.
“The films complement each other quite nicely,” Liman said. “But to be honest, ‘War Machine’ is a bit more of a Hollywood point of view. It’s what you’d expect Hollywood to say about modern war. ‘The Wall’ isn’t — it takes war as a reality and looks at what it’s like to be in it.”
“I don’t want to get into a spat with Doug Liman,” Michod said when told of the other director’s comments. “But it’s not as if we haven’t seen war films in the last 10 years about the experience of men fighting on the ground. The hole that was noticeable and unsettling to me is of films that don’t take as their basic guiding principle the unquestioning reverence of the military.”
For all their divergence, these two efforts do face a common obstacle: How does one make war relevant at a time when other kinds of conflict are unfolding in Washington, D.C.? News cycles have been consumed by President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, putting the events of soldiers overseas out of mind for an even larger number of Americans.
“It’s an interesting question, and I don’t have a straightforward answer,” said Taylor-Johnson. “You never really know how it fits within people’s present day. I think movies that work one year don’t work another because of where people are.”
Liman says that what some might see as a period piece (his film is set in 2009) should instead serve as an important present reminder. “Not relevant? Tell that to the family of Kyle Milliken,” the director said, referring to the member of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 killed in a raid in Somalia recently. “Tell that to all the other soldiers who are still being killed in combat.”
Michod says he feels all the focus on Trump is hardly a reason to move on — in fact, the opposite is true. After all, he notes, in recent days, his movie has found itself unintentionally prescient, as news has broken that the White House is considering sending 5,000 troops back to Afghanistan.
“We’re seriously contemplating that? To achieve what? Secure a bunch of mud villages in mountainous regions inhabited by illiterate peasants?” Michod asked. “This film is definitely still relevant.”
As he sat in an editing suite downtown during post-production on “The Wall,” Liman wondered why bullets whizzing through the air sounded so inauthentic.
“Can we make it seem less movie-ish?” he said to a team of editors and sound designers. “Something about it doesn’t feel right.”
Liman had been tweaking and tinkering, trying to capture the essence of war, going at it so heavily he was still editing less than a month before the film’s release in theaters by Roadside Attractions.
In a large freeze-frame on the screen in front of Liman, an equipment-saddled John Cena lay writhing on one spot. Taylor-Johnson, meanwhile, shimmied eel-like on the ground, his face caked in dirt as bullets from a mysterious sniper ringed past his ears.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a movie where what happens in edit is so critical to what happens in the film,” the director later said.
“The simplicity and bareness of the storytelling means the details are important. They can drive tension as much as a big bomb.”
Yet it’s more than cinematic effect the “Bourne Identity” director is after. Ever since he began adapting Dwain Worrell’s blacklist script, about two sergeants pinned in Iraqi no-man’s land after the crux of the war had ended, he has wanted to make a larger social statement.
Because the story had Taylor-Johnson’s character communicating via radio with the enemy sniper, an articulate anti-American named Juba, the film was already as much a morality-play two-hander as a war-is-hell dramatic thriller.
But Liman wanted still more than that — more than an entry in what might be called the noble-hero subgenre, the kind embodied by films such as “The Hurt Locker” and “American Sniper.” He wanted to show how the pain of war was psychological in another way.
“I’m very interested in that scale difference,” Liman said. “This isn’t Matt Damon trapped on Mars and the whole world is wondering whether he can be saved. The stakes are tiny here to the outside world; most people don’t even realize there are any. But for the people in the story, they couldn’t be bigger. I think that says a lot about how war plays out in today’s world.”
‘Absurdity of war’
As he sat at a hotel restaurant downtown, Michod reflected on some of the ways his movie is sure to be divisive.
“War Machine” has only a loose narrative arc as it follows an incoming leader and his motley team as they arrive in Afghanistan tasked — maybe — with winning the war, then, later, loosely chronicles the events that led up to Hastings’ infamous Rolling Stone article and McChrystal’s firing by President Barack Obama. Instead of playing it straight, “War Machine” teases out absurdist characters in even more absurdist situations as they face a skeptical local populace and even more skeptical U.S. government. (Also, a skeptical media: Tilda Swinton serves as the film’s conscience, playing an interrogative German journalist in one of the movie’s most notable scenes.)
Maybe most extreme is Pitt’s highly stylized performance as Gen. Glenn McMahon (characters are given fictional names for creative-liberty purposes), lending the action a satirical edge.
“I instantly saw in the book a movie that would fit in that long tradition of American war comedy,” said Michod, the Aussie behind “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover.” “All the great ones, “Catch-22 “ and “Strangelove” and “MASH,” have at their core something true, yet they also amplify the absurdity of war. These modern wars seem to be built on the grand delusion — that in the face of no foreseeable tangible victory, you start to imagine that you can fight to help the poor and oppressed. And as soon as I hear delusion, I think comedy.”
Scoot McNairy plays the character based on the late Hastings, making his presence felt via a voice-over filled with punchy philosophy about military culture. (“These guys thought they were the most important guys in the world with the most important jobs in the world. Maybe they assumed I thought they were as amazing as they did.”) “War Machine” is as much an essayistic criticism of contemporary war as a narrative embodiment of it.
In the film’s final section, McNairy’s voice-over lays out the McChrystalized theme. “It would have been nice,” he said, “if the conversation after had been about the failure of the counter-insurgency, or why we seem so desperate to be at war all the time, or how maybe what we’re doing is making more enemies all in the name of keeping America safe,” So charged was the movie that the principals pushed it from the fall amid all that electoral explosiveness.
While cinema is large enough to accommodate multiple films in the same genre at the same time, “War Machine” and “The Wall” offer views not easily reconciled. Should film assume war as a given and seek to understand how we fight it, as “The Wall” does? Or should it try to rip down many of its structures in the first place?
That Amazon and Netflix are taking their respective approaches shouldn’t be surprising. The former is the company of details, of shipping discounts and granular products. It is taking a color-drenched, up-close look at the subject. Netflix, the firm of international ambitions and 100-million global subscribers, may wish for a more macro view.
Incidentally, measuring success won’t be easy: Amazon will garner many viewers when it later makes the movie available on its Prime service, reducing the importance of this weekend’s box-office data. Netflix won’t report any meaningful numbers at all.
For all the ways their movies — and studios — seek different aims, the directors are united by another commonality: Their backers are perhaps the only large Hollywood entities that would make their movies this way.
“War Machine” was set up with studio mainstays New Regency and RatPac, but they balked at the budget, estimated at $60 million. Michôd and Pitt’s Plan B pulled the project from there and set it up at Netflix.
“I think there’s a reason we’re here,” Michôd said. “We needed Netflix; the studios today won’t make a movie this risky at this price.”
Liman sought his own refuge among the streamers. As he was about to shoot, he decided to change the script’s final section dramatically, so the film becomes (even) darker. He was received warmly.
“To be able to propose an ending like this to your executives and have them be supportive is just unheard of,” he said.
“At the studios,” he added, “the fights would have been legendary.”