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'War Machine' Is a Schizophrenic Blend of Tone and Genre

Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon

David Michôd’s war satire is neither smart enough to be a think piece nor visceral enough to evoke anger.

War Machine

Director: David Michôd
Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace
Studio: Netflix
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-05-26
Brad Pitt's Gen. Glen McMahon is like an alien creature trying desperately to emulate human behavior while single-mindedly accomplishing his otherworldly objective.
Perhaps it’s fitting that War Machine, director David Michôd’s meditation on the interminable American war in Afghanistan, feels more like a holding action than a proper deconstruction. All of the elements for a good film are certainly in place. The performances, production, dialogue, and subtext are all perfectly acceptable, but they never coalesce into something more substantive.

It takes only a passing knowledge of history to understand that America loves war. It’s part of our architecture; the foundation of not only foreign policy but the occasional domestic dust-up, as well. As the prodigious voiceover narration sarcastically intones, America is a “beacon of composure and proportionate response.”

How does a nation obsessed with winning, then, fight a war that was lost the minute it started? This is the heady question anchoring Michôd’s film. Not surprisingly, he’s just as baffled as the politicians and soldiers trying to answer it.

Based on the book The Operators by the late journalist Michael Hastings, War Machine is a schizophrenic blend of tone and genre. Michôd (The Rover, 2014, Animal Kingdom, 2010), who also adapted the screenplay, tries to capture the futility of modern warfare by mixing satire, drama, and bloodshed. Ironically, the only thing he creates is a film that’s frustratingly stuck between success and failure.

Michod’s chief creative co-conspirator is Brad Pitt. Here, Pitt serves as producer, and stars as General Glen McMahon, who has a brief and undistinguished tenure as the commanding officer of Coalition forces in Afghanistan. The newly elected Barack Obama dispatches McMahon, who is incapable of bullshit, to Afghanistan in 2009 to implement ‘counterinsurgency’ techniques.

Therein lies the rub… counterinsurgency techniques -- coercing captured territories into espousing your values rather than a neighboring warlord’s -- are bullshit.

It’s the sort of public relations think-tank nonsense that plays well to focus groups but has no proper combat application. Like trying to win someone’s heart while blowing their head off, the very notion that an occupied population could ever embrace their occupiers borders on the insane. Nonetheless, McMahon, adoringly dubbed ‘Glenimal’ by his troops, tries his best to “support the civilian population”, often with stacks of cold hard cash.

The satire in War Machine, most of which resides in the film’s first half, focuses on McMahon’s sincere efforts to win the war while still appeasing civilian policy makers, for whom he has nothing but contempt. He’s the exact opposite of what you need in situations that require subtlety and restraint; a hyper-stylized military man who eats only one meal a day, sleeps only four hours a night, and jogs seven miles every single day. McMahon is so driven to master everything in his path that he doesn’t even swing his arms while jogging; his body simply refuses to allow such a frivolous waste of energy.

Pitt does an admirable job of distracting you from the fact he’s Brad Pitt, scrunching his face into impossible configurations and borrowing Christian Bale’s vocal stylings from the Batman franchise. McMahon is basically a carnivorous dinosaur trying to negotiate a political landscape of salads and tofu. When instructed to clean up the mess in Afghanistan without further troop escalation, McMahon promptly requests 40,000 more troops. He’s like an alien creature trying desperately to emulate human behavior while single-mindedly accomplishing his otherworldly objective.

Nowhere is this disconnect more evident than his interpersonal relationships, particularly that with his long-suffering wife, Jeannie (Meg Tilly). My god, it’s good to see Tilly again! At once elegant and relatable, with her silvery hair and decidedly (un)Hollywood pudgy chin, she immediately becomes the emotional center of a film crucially lacking in humanity. After Jeannie calculates she has spent less than 30 days a year for the last eight years with her husband, you can feel her anguish when she tries to reassure herself that, “Everything’s okay.”

Pitt is flanked by scores of talented supporting performances, including Ben Kingsley as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who bears a hilarious behavioral resemblance to Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3. Veteran character actors such as Alan Ruck and Anthony Michael Hall also shine. Hall, in particular, excels as McMahon’s unhinged personal bulldog who says the politically incorrect things that his boss can’t afford to say.

These tremendous actors provide some necessary emotional opposition to the robotic Pitt, who is stuck inside a character incapable of growth or realization. This lack of insight or humanity from McMahon hinders the dramatic component of War Machine, particularly after the satire peters out.

Worse still, the film’s final act transitions into an unconvincing battle sequence involving the war-weary Marines at Sasquatch base in Helmand Province. This last ditch effort to control a Taliban stronghold feels perfunctory and pandering; as if Michôd needs to reassure everyone that he can love the troops while still hating the hierarchical bureaucracy.

Misguided as it might be, this sequence showcases Lakeith Stanfield, who continues to distinguish himself as a brilliant actor. Stanfield, along with Tilda Swinton (slumming it in one scene as a German politician), functions as the thematic center of the film. Each shows up to painstakingly explain the human toll of counterinsurgency techniques. For a film that isn’t exactly challenging audiences with its conceptual complexity, randomly inserting these morality surrogates is insulting and jarring.

While it’s admirable that David Michôd takes his war satire in a different direction than acerbic wordsmiths like Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, 2009) and David Mamet (Wag the Dog, 1997), it makes for a frustratingly uneven viewing experience. Perhaps it’s a case of honoring the literary source material too much, as War Machine fundamentally fails as compelling cinema. It’s not smart enough to be a think piece and not visceral enough to evoke anger. There’s a lot to like here, but, ultimately, War Machine wins the battle and loses the war.


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