Film Review: Brad Pitt in ‘War Machine’

Brad Pitt War Machine
Courtesy of Netflix

Brad Pitt is cartoonishly miscast as the U.S. general delusional enough to believe he can win the war in Afghanistan in big-budget Netflix misfire.

Everyone has a different idea of what’s funny, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being amused by “War Machine,” a colossally miscalculated satire about a U.S. general who thought he could “win” the war in Afghanistan at precisely the moment President Obama announced he would be pulling troops out of the country. A costly flop from Netflix’s newish “Originals” division, “War Machine” stars a cockeyed Brad Pitt — who spends the entire film with his left brow cartoonishly arched and his right eye squinched half-shut — in the sort of role that really ought to have gone to John Goodman, or some comparably gifted character actor.

But bless their hearts, the execs at Netflix still believe in stars, which is sort of a radical notion in an era when the old-school studios have consistently hyped visual effects ahead of the interchangeably handsome hunks selected to play Spartan warriors, superheroes and whatever passes for leading men these days (precious few of whom would qualify as stars in the classic sense). Opening in select theaters amid a minefield of CG tentpoles, “War Machine” may be a dud, but it’s the kind that ought to be encouraged regardless, if only because it attempts to deliver the kind of relevant-to-our-times adult entertainment Hollywood once provided — and because it serves up a real, flesh-and-blood character for an actor of Pitt’s abilities to sink his teeth into, even if Pitt himself was the wrong choice.

Pitt plays Gen. Glen McMahon, a can-do, shoot-from-the-gut Army Ranger who fancies himself a modern-day Patton — except he was born too late to swoop in and take charge of such clear-cut conflicts. These days, war is messy, and heroism is complicated (where talk of a “courageous restraint” medal honors those who don’t fire their weapons). Over the course of McMahon’s career, America has put its foot in one unwinnable quagmire after another, complicating his shot at personal glory — and that, argues writer-director David Michôd (and the Tilda Swinton-puppeted mouthpiece he gets to say as much), is what the otherwise retirement-ready general wants.

Michôd’s message couldn’t be more obvious, though satire represents an ungainly change for the director, a sharp, punchy Australian whose take-no-prisoners thrillers “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover” don’t flinch in the face of uncomfortable situations. “War Machine,” on the other hand, appears to be tiptoeing through a minefield of its own making: On one hand, it’s a harsh critique of the perceived absurdity of America’s ongoing involvement in Afghanistan, while at the same time, the film is sympathetic to the servicemen themselves. Michôd doesn’t mind taking jabs at Obama (who appears out of focus, jive-walking down a formation of top-ranking advisors) and Afghanistan’s democratically elected Hamid Karzai (alternately wise and buffoonish, as played by Ben Kingsley), but changes the name and much of the personality of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, on whom Pitt’s character is based.

Loosely adapted from “The Operators,” reporter Michael Hastings’ book-length exposé of how the McChrystal-led coalition forces conducted themselves in Afghanistan, “War Machine” struggles to find a balance between empathy and outright criticism. Military strategy is too complicated to be reduced to something as glib as Michôd sees it — although there’s truth in the notion that officers find purpose amid unrest, while their commanders in chief want to give peace a chance. Like an animation studio that must lay off half its work force between productions, the American military apparatus is a pipeline that feeds on conflict, not “completion” — and McMahon’s idea of the latter is to stir up more trouble.

The film opens with a shot of the general’s boots seen beneath an airport bathroom stall, followed by the sound of the can flushing. It’s a curious way to introduce a decorated officer — basically, the polar opposite of a respectful salute — though it’s consistent with the title of McMahon’s (made-up) memoir, “One Leg at a Time,” which implies that save-the-world military heroes put their pants on the same way you and I do, though it might as well be “Everybody Poops.” What follows is meant to function as a feature-length dressing-down of a self-important general, but someone has pulled “War Machine’s” teeth, assuming the movie ever had them to begin with.

Upon his arrival in Afghanistan, McMahon is briefed by a bunch of Washington bureaucrats, who make one thing clear: no more troops. Naturally, McMahon takes a flash appraisal of the situation and decides he needs 40,000 more soldiers to secure the most dangerous, Taliban-infested region of the country. Only then, he reasons, will the local population believe in the occupying forces’ ability to protect them. But if the enemy are insurgents — “regular people in regular people clothes” — how are American soldiers supposed to identify them, one demoralized corporal (Lakeith Stanfield) wants to know.

We may question McMahon’s motives, but as portrayed by Pitt, he’s committed to both the local people and the rank-and-file soldiers tasked with protecting them. Early on, McMahon insists on having an Afghanistan advisor on staff — an idea so foreign that civilian Badi Basim (Aymen Hamdouchi) is treated as a suspected suicide bomber when he arrives on foot for his first day of service. Our own impression of McMahon is shaped by heavy (and heavily biased) narration from the Rolling Stone journalist (played by Scoot McNary) whose “The Runaway General” profile forced McChrystal to tender his resignation to Obama, with whom he’d had next-to-zero direct interaction prior.

McMahon is itching for battle, but first, he must go to Paris to sell the coalition countries on his plan — and this is where Michôd might have doubled-down, but instead backs away from the comic absurdity of it all. By this point, Netflix audiences will probably be asking themselves why a movie called “War Machine” doesn’t feature more fighting (it has a wee bit of that, but hardly enough to qualify as a war movie). No, this is policy movie, and unless Netflix has intel the rest of the world doesn’t — like, how modest-earner “Charlie Wilson’s War” went on to become the most-streamed movie on their service or something — it looks like the kind of bomb that Hollywood, not Washington, specializes in making.

Film Review: Brad Pitt in 'War Machine'

Reviewed at Netflix screening room, Los Angeles, May 8, 2017. Running time: 122 MIN.

Production

A Netflix release and presentation of a Plan B Entertainment production. Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Ted Sarandos, Ian Bryce. Executive producer: James W. Skotchdopole.

Crew

Director, writer: David Michôd. Camera (color, widescreen): Dariusz Wolski. Editor: Peter Sciberras. Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis.

With

Brad Pitt, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Alan Ruck, Lakeith Stanfield, Josh Stewart, Meg Tilly, Tilda Swinton, Ben Kingsley.

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  1. Roscoe says:

    The author (Peter Debruge) got his idealogical ox (Pro Hollywood/Obama) gored which left left a bad taste in his mouth. Speaking for one of the deplorables I can’t wait for the sequel with Russell Crowe. Atta boy Brad…your Missouri roots are showing.

  2. Mark says:

    Disgraceful and tasteless review, author does not understand the messages underpinning the plot.

  3. DD214 says:

    Having been deployed to Helmand as a Marine during this exact timeframe, this film highlights some of the (many) issues the military is facing in a surprisingly accurate depiction. What you see as a caricature or satire is much closer to reality than you really want to admit to yourself. You cannot change a culture at gunpoint unless you want to commit genocide or enslave it.

  4. Seth Premo says:

    Sounds like you were looking for a film that was just like some other film you saw. If you were a good writer, you would’ve given less time to plot summary, and more time to the film’s meta-messages — provided you could see them and feel them at all.

    • Stéphane says:

      I completely agree with you. The subtleties can easily be missed and if you only watch this film on a superficial basis you are missing the point.

      Probably many people can’t take the way some people in this movie are portrayed, but people want to believe what they think is the truth and what is right – how influenced they are via media to the extent that they become unaware of it because they are inundated with it.

  5. Jonathan Pulliam says:

    Loved the film. Strongly disagree with this review.

  6. Daniel Rochefort says:

    To me, it was brilliant. The characters have depth, deliciously caricatured on the outside (while one can not help but notice that reality is probably beyond fiction) and rich in contradiction and sincerity in the inside. Is’nt hell paved with good intentions ?

    The political satire is particularly pungent and delicious… and what about this conclusion in fish tail ?

    A downside: the final military operation is ridiculously modest for what was to be a decisive attack. Lack of budget or deliberate choice ? Nevertheless, it supports the authors’ comments.

    A movie to be seen, which sheds light on the present “grand théatre” in Southeast Asia.

  7. Dan says:

    Watched it a couple days ago. I expected some kind of comedic scenarios based on Netflix’ description but I didn’t see anything as the wording implied. I just saw a bunch of very plausible events that may have been very loosely based on reality. Not a bad watch–just not what I expected–which, also, isn’t necessarily bad. Hm.

  8. Joe Bush says:

    Can’t win a war by fighting an insurgency. But on the bright side girls are going to school now in Afghanistan – which before would cost them their heads. Maybe that jackass of a reporter from the Rolling Stone doesn’t think that is as important as his shit head wit, but hey just an idea.

  9. AllWiledUp says:

    Brad Pitt seems like a helluva nice guy and he’s pretty but he’s a mediocre actor. He should stick to producing now. He’ll never segue into character leads like Mcconaughey did. A man should know his limits.

  10. So you can see the future? You call a film a flop before it has even been released. It could become the most watched Netflix Original ever for all you know. (That wouldn’t make it good, but it would mean it was not a flop.)

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