'War Machine' Takes a Satirical Look at the Lost Cause of the Afghanistan War
After a rough start and an unsure handle on what kind of comedy it wants to be, this Afghanistan war satire says what few have been willing to say.
War MachineDirector: David Michod
Cast: Brad Pitt, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler
Writer: David Michod
US Release date: 2017-05-26
In David Michod’s fumbling but necessary War Machine, the fire-breathing general played by Brad Pitt is not named Stanley McChrystal. Michod’s script is adapted from The Operators, a book that Michael Hastings expanded from his 2010 Rolling Stone article that got McChrystal fired, and Pitt has been groomed to reflect McChrystal’s lean and stark visage.
Nevertheless, Pitt’s general is named Glen McMahon. Since nearly all the other elements here, from McMahon’s interactions with Presidents Obama and Karzai on down to the drunken hullabaloo the general’s staff gets into in Europe, track closely with Hastings’ account, it is unlikely anybody is going to be fooled by the sleight of hand.
Things kick off in 2009, when McMahon, aka “The Glenimal”, charges into Kabul like George S. Patton’s less patient twin. Surrounded by a platoon of intensely loyal hangers-on, McMahon is looking to repeat the success he had decimating insurgent networks in Iraq. A cannier movie would have stood back a bit and allowed the audience to get sucked in by the presence of McMahon’s West Point, Ranger school, Yale graduate, warrior with a degree, armored carapace of confidence before making apparent his pride-blinded cluelessness.
But Michod is so determined to lay out his talking points that War Machine starts as a series of tableaus illustrating the lengthy sardonic narration by the movie’s Rolling Stone writer, Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy). He tells viewers exactly what to think about the complexities of McMahon, who is “both a straight-A student and troublemaker” and a strategic intellectual who can’t comprehend what every grunt knows in his bones: This isn’t now, and never will, work.
Cullen also spends an inordinate amount of time explaining who is who in McMahon’s entourage -- a sprawling ensemble where few besides a Red Bull-amped Anthony Michael Hall distinguish themselves -- something that would have been better handled by, say, character and dialogue. Very little happens for a long time beyond McMahon striding purposefully about like a clueless clown in fatigues.
The problem with this schematic approach to satire is that it can be like listening to somebody who keeps laughing before they get to the punchline of their joke. It places inordinate importance on the strength of the punchline, which usually isn’t there. The comedy consists mostly of McMahon puffing up his chest and ignoring the obvious, while the narration underlines the gag. But this approach also removes the audience from having any culpability.
A stronger screenplay would have drawn viewers into McMahon’s orbit from the outset, seduced them into thinking that yes, maybe this is the general of everyone’s dreams, before yanking the trap door open. As it is, there’s no mistaking McMahon’s hellbent determination to pour more troops into Kandahar -- ignoring the British officer who tells him the province is so remote, strategically unimportant, and fully stocked with Taliban that it’s a lost cause --- for anything but fatal hubris. McChrystal was a brilliant special-ops tactician; McMahon doesn’t appear able to tie his own boots. By making his foolishness so apparent from the outset, the audience is left off the hook for buying into his act as so many others do.
The uneasy interplay in War Machine between comedy and wartime drama is reflective of the initially failed attempts to marry the styles. Air-dropping pallets of irony and the absurd into a war zone is fraught territory: just see Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) or any of its ilk. It’s a type of satire that needs the nervy and unerring hand of an Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep). Michod has shown himself, in movies like Animal Kingdom (2016) and The Rover (2014), to be well-versed in dark dramas pregnant with violence and remorse. He doesn’t have anywhere close to the dagger-like touch needed for something like War Machine to succeed as some three-ring circus of military folly.
However, unlike most high-concept movies, which start off strong and don’t know where to go, War Machine begins in uncertain territory but finds its way. Pitt’s slit-eyed and clownish McMahon, a role that Pitt chews on like an old cigar, remains the ringleader of his own circus of sycophants, all lusting for the glory awaiting the general who can finally win the Afghanistan War. But in a surprisingly deft move, Michod finds the time to deliver a succinct breakdown of both the military’s post-Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy and a stinging rebuke to their chances of ever succeeding in Afghanistan. Michod’s feel for eerie set pieces reeking of threat is well in evidence in the movie’s later sections, when an American squad fights futilely to retake an Afghan village that doesn’t want them there, even if they managed not to kill any civilians.
Gen. Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) and President Karzai (Ben Kingsley)
The sporadic satiric greatness of War Machine comes less in the raucous scenes of McMahon’s enablers tightening ranks against the haters who would tear their boss down, but its willingness to declare that the very idea of an effective anti-Taliban coalition, and all McMahon’s talk of winning hearts and minds, is little more than a sham. The only character who seems to have it all figured out is Karzai himself (played by Ben Kingsley with a brilliantly fey aloofness), who tells a bemused McMahon that he appreciates being included in the “theatre” of it all. In his Rolling Stone article, Hastings crafted a handy analogy for the ridiculousness of it all:
… after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock.
At this point, even though American soldiers have been killing, getting killed, and trying to figure out what they hell they are doing in Afghanistan since 2001, it and the only slightly younger Iraq War have remained losing propositions for Hollywood. When the movies have touched down in Afghanistan, they have generally been small-bore, focusing on small-unit combat situations where the audience can follow the life-and-death struggles of an intimate group. That’s no surprise; most war movies have followed that model, for a simple reason: As Stalin is reputed to have said, a single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.
Buffoonery aside, War Machine is a movie that remembers the big picture counts as well.