Cast: Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, Topher Grace, Daniel Betts, Aymen Hamdouchi, RJ Cyler, Alan Ruck, Meg Tilly, Nicholas Jones, Will Poulter, Lakeith Stanfield, Reggie Brown, Griffin Dunne, Ben Kingsley
Director: David Michôd
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director David Michôd tries his hand at political satire with War Machine, an adaptation of late journalist Michael Hastings' book The Operators, which chronicled the notorious fall of General Stanley McChrystal, a U.S. commander and leader of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Hastings had roasted McChrystal prior to publishing the book in a vicious 2010 Rolling Stone article which painted him as an egotistical, dim-witted madman who used the war as a business model for greedy politicians. Michôd's film, which stars Brad Pitt as the McChrystal stand-in General Glenn McMahon, strives to be Robert Altman's M.A.S.H. or even David O. Russell's Three Kings, but falls closer to something like the 1981 military comedy Stripes in its scatological humor at the expense of meaningful insights.
However, despite a wobbly tone and yet another broad performance from Pitt in the Burn After Reading/Inglorious Basterds mode, War Machine is graced with stellar supporting turns and a smirking deconstruction of phony male military posturing. The film's first half is a bit of a slog, though, using apathetic voice-over narration as a string of secondary characters are introduced, given one or two personality traits, and just as quickly discarded. Only a testosterone-fueled Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon's right hand man and Topher Grace as a smug P.R. drone make any significant impact, although the film's best performance actually belongs to Meg Tilly, who brings more nuance to her few scenes as the General's wife than the film surrounding her deserves.
Squinting, curling his lip, and affecting a gravely voice which sounds like Elmer Fudd choking on tobacco, Pitt leans into caricature as a leader who truly believes that the war can be won through good old fashioned American democracy. That such democracy involves invading other nations and then killing innocent civilians and destroying their neighborhoods, is easily written off by McMahon and his cronies because such tactics have been bedrocks of American war-making for decades. If Michôd fails to truly nail the tone of nihilistic absurdity (for one thing, the film is much too soft on McMahon by making him into something of a loveable idiot), then he largely succeeds at extrapolating a more sobering truth; that larger-than-life figures like McMahon are simply disposable pawns in a powerful system that's rotten from the inside out.
Perhaps one of the reasons a satire like War Machine doesn't seem quite as biting in 2017 is that we are now living in an era where abject military dysfunction is the least of our worries. An ego-driven yet well-meaning blowhard like McMahon now seems, despite his irrevocable lapses in judgment and morality, like a relic from a simpler time. For example, when the General goes for his daily 7 am jog (visualized by Pitt in one of the film's funnier gags as a robotic shuffle), there's something almost endearing about a man so fixated on his absurd routines. This ultimately does the film a disservice, however, since there's nothing charming about the horrors of counterinsurgency. Michôd attempts to balance out his obvious affection toward his central buffoon by giving us a young marine (Lakeith Stanfield) who opposes his country's practices and a cameo from Tilda Swinton as a strident news reporter trotting out the picture's themes with an extended monologue, but such elements feel tacked on in order to provide a broader context that the film isn't really that interested in examining.
If Michôd's previous directorial efforts, 2010's crime drama Animal Kingdom and 2014's dystopian Western/survival thriller The Rover hinted at a filmmaker toying with genre conventions, then War Machine feels oddly didactic for someone so invested in maintaining a specific mood. Here, the tone is wonky; lurching from Catch-22-esque satire to on-the-ground combat realism, with Michôd struggling to convince us of just what type of story he wises to tell. McMahon is a macho caricature, as many military types are, and the war in Afghanistan was a complete disaster, as most wars tend to be. Pitt's square-jaw, squinty eyes, and ridiculous jogging motion approximates this, but to what end? When one of the General's snide higher-ups turns to him and says, “You’re not here to win, you’re here to clean up the mess,” we almost sympathize with a man who hopes to lead a squadron who have long abandoned him, and that in itself, is a problem that War Machine is too distracted making it's obvious points about the futility of the military industrial complex to truly comprehend.