If asked months ago what their expectations for how last week would be remembered in its company’s history, Netflix execs might have guessed they would be basking in the success of its first breakout success in original films courtesy of “War Machine,” which was just released on the streaming service.
But instead the $60 million war satire featuring Brad Pitt as star and producer has squeaked by with a modicum of short-lived buzz. And in “War Machine’s” absence, the talk about Netflix stayed focused on its bustling TV side, though not in the form of the usual wonderment about the endless string of hits like its most recent, “13 Reasons Why.” To the contrary, this was the week when Netflix displayed a rare sense of fallibility, axing two expensive original series after years of appearing to rubber-stamp renewals. Icarus had finally drooped into the stratosphere.
For those inclined to chalk that up as a meaningless coincidence, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings didn’t exactly dispel that notion the very same week by putting a unique spin on the cancellations, contending that his company should actually be yanking shows more often, freeing itself up to take yet more shots at scoring hits with more new series.
During a week when Netflix found itself taking a step back in the TV world at the same time it should have been showing some progress in the film world, maybe Hastings’ odd rationalization felt right at home. To top that off, neither situation changed Wall Street’s perception of Netflix, which saw its stock reach record highs amid a broader surge for the tech sector’s famed FANG quartet that also includes Facebook, Amazon and Google. Over a remarkable run that has prompted some analysts to deem investor exuberance for Netflix as irrational, rewarding fallibility seems entirely logical.
But lost in all this is the underwhelming arrival of “War Machine,” which represented an upgrade in the kind of budget and star power that could have conceivably delivered Netflix’s first film hit. Instead, the film scored a lukewarm 54% on “Rotten Tomatoes.” Coming off a Cannes Film Festival where another pair of Netflix original films was well-received amid a controversy that seemed to serve no purpose other than marketing the company’s cinematic ambitions, “War Machine” felt like a letdown. What could have been as impactful as “House of Cards” was for its TV unit ended up a missed opportunity.
That’s strange because the movie’s subject is tailor-made to resonate in these politically charged times. A fictionalization of the non-fiction book “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” it’s a tale of geopolitical brinkmanship that evokes the misadventures of a certain real-life president. “War Machine” is rendered by Pitt’s powerhouse Plan B shingle with the same style and social conscience that proved so winning in other titles that came from this production company including “The Big Short” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
And yet “War Machine” hasn’t made the kind of waves Plan B is so good at generating, at least not yet anyway. Perhaps Netflix generates more of a slow-burn effect than the more immediate propulsion the traditional theatrical route provides. Or maybe the just movie just doesn’t work, perhaps because the traditional studio apparatus that might have teamed with Plan B to ensure “War Machine” was released in tip-top shape was replaced by a company relatively inexperienced in the delicate art of shepherding films.
Forgive Netflix if it underestimated what it takes to tackle the film business; the Midas-like luck the company encountered in TV might have deluded them into thinking that whatever they released would be embraced. But ever since 2015, when Netflix made a bid for Oscar glory with “Beasts of No Nation” only to fall short of the mark, the buzz that came so easily from TV just isn’t sticking. If anything, the mark made has come on the lower end of the cultural spectrum, where a multi-film pact with Adam Sandler hasn’t exactly taken Hollywood’s former clown prince to a new level in his own career.
Even in 2017, when Netflix began accelerating the volume of film releases, nothing is really sticking. In the company’s most recent letter to investors released with its quarterly earnings, in which it typically crows about its best work, Netflix went so far as to actually take the unusual move of singling out a failure: “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.”
It was another odd bit of spin for Netflix, but with a purpose: Acknowledging fallibility is a statement to the market that the company knows it needs to do better. That’s why film veteran Scott Stuber was recently hired, presumably not to just keep the company on the same course that isn’t serving itself too well.
With a true pro in place, there may be hope yet for Netflix original films. It’s unfortunate “War Machine” underwhelmed because like “Big Short” it has important things to say about the dysfunctional military-industrial complex. Critics’ assessments of the movie are all over the map; my own is that what’s most unfortunate about the film is that the first 10 minutes are its worst, an exposition-heavy mess that may have prompted many Netflix users to bail out early before they got the chance to see what is actually quite good once it settles into a rhythm after its punishing start. A performance by Pitt that can seem hammy and over the top at first starts to take on some nuance by the end that reminds you how good an actor he is.
“War Machine” could have been a big movie not just for Netflix but for the world at large, and it’s a shame that it isn’t. Let’s hope the streaming service can do better than the military in Afghanistan, and figure out how to turn this thing around.