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.