Synopsis – An absurdist war story for our times, writer-director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) recreates a U.S. General’s roller-coaster rise and fall as part reality, part savage parody – raising the specter of just where the line between them lies today. His is an exploration of a born leader’s ultra-confident march right into the dark heart of folly. At the story’s core is Brad Pitt’s sly take on a successful, charismatic four-star general who leapt in like a rock star to command NATO forces in Afghanistan, only to be taken down by a journalist’s no-holds-barred exposé.
My Take – Surrounded by hype for the past few months, not due to its subject matter, but mainly due to its purchase of its distribution rights by Netflix for a whopping $60 million, this satirical but honest look at the treadmill of war sets itself in the category of a special breed of movies that defy categorization. While serious films around the Afghanistan war or the Iraq war have become a common staple of the war genre, this film about the no-holds-barred account of America’s troubled endeavors in the Middle East is mainly just about the absurdity of the war of Afghanistan and the absurdity of American foreign policy in general, therefore the tone of the film is absurdist to reflect this. But the problem with this David Michod film is that it isn’t quite sure how cynical it wants to be. Whether it’s intentionally off-putting I am not sure, mainly as the film is at times laugh out loud funny & at other times devastatingly, gut-wrenchingly tense and moving. An adaptation of the late Michael Hastings’ non-fiction book The Operators: The Wild And Terrifying Inside Story Of America’s War In Afghanistan (itself expanded from Hastings’ 2010 Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General”) that bears almost no resemblance to Michod’s earlier Australian films Animal Kingdom and The Rover, the film casts Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a fictional stand-in for Stanley McChrystal, the onetime commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan who tried to win a supposedly unwinnable war and whose career was destroyed by Hastings’ all-access profile. Despite the high statistical likelihood of its existence, nothing in the movie suggests that it was made to please anyone, except when it’s trying to be a rollicking comedy. Yup! You will be confused as I am.
Narrated by Rolling Stones journalist Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), a character inspired by Hastings, the story follows Gen. Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), who in 2009, fresh off a successful campaign in Iraq implementing his SNORP principles is appointed to win the war in Afghanistan as public support for the war has fallen substantially and previous efforts to clean up Afghanistan by other military generals have been mixed to shoddy. Beloved by men who served directly under him, and accompanied by a tight inner circle of soldiers who attend to his every need and request, Gen. Glen McMahon is a charismatic leader who believes in the importance of outreach to local Afghan leaders and soldiers, and plans to win the hearts and minds of Afghan citizens through sustained promotion of democratic values, however finds himself at odds with the chaos that surrounds his troops, i.e. the general population who still consider Americans an occupying force and are just sick of the war, the result of which a large section off Afghanistan still remains covered by insurgents. In order to execute his plan, he needs to get a couple of people on board, for example, then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), who’s uninterested in leaving the state palace; local leaders who tell him the war cannot be won; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who warns him against asking for more troops. McMahon genuinely means well and he isn’t short on confidence but he doesn’t understand the situation he’s being placed in as he slowly figures out that the administration didn’t put him there to win, but to minimize the collateral damage and clean up the mess. McMahon seems oblivious to this and continues on like he’s there to win and decides to use any means to get his way after not getting his meeting with President Obama, one that includes a disaster idea from his Media consultant Matt Little (Topher Grace), who suggests about Rolling Stone writing a feature on him. Unbowed, McMahon does exactly that, and tries to maneuver his way into securing a huge commitment of resources with unforeseen results. When the movie begins, it’s hard to nail down the tone of the movie. Yes, the film doesn’t have any problem poking fun at how the War in Afghanistan was handled but the movie tries to be funny and yet show the difficulty coalition forces had in trying to secure the area. The narration provides some helpful information and really details how this kind of invasion rarely if ever works. I think the film manages to elicit some quality laughs and provide a different take in looking back at the war in Afghanistan but it doesn’t always gel evenly. The story manages to hit a bunch of themes and subject matters, there is commentary on the American way of war, the impact of deployments on marriage, the wisdom of military intervention, the politics of coalition building, and the dynamics of leadership. But the manner in which it chooses to do this constantly shifts. If you look at director David Michod comments about making a schizophrenic movie, it provides a little context to the tonal inconsistency. I think it strives to be a dark comedy, but therein lies its ultimate shortfall. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. Which is a shame because the funny parts are sincerely funny (Pitt‘s character defending the honor of his Afghan compatriot as “the only Afghan in the room”, Pitt and his White House (or Sec Def?) civilian contact trying to end a video conference, and Ben Kingsley’s hilarious (however infrequent) take on President Karzai all come to mind.) But the tone itself is multiple personalities. While it is always mocking (as satires are supposed to be) and skeptical, sometimes it’s cutting to the bone, other times very light and whimsical, still other times deeply serious. The idea behind the film is not bad on paper. While the usual targets of geopolitical satire are stuffed shirts, weasels, and smooth talkers, the butt of the joke here is McMahon, an undiplomatic, gut-instinct soldier’s soldier who runs his office like the head coach of an over-budgeted college football team, assisted by a team of lackeys, played by the likes of Topher Grace (as his sleazy public-relations guru) and Anthony Michael Hall (as a character based on Mike Flynn).
Director Michod does manage to wring some solid laughs early on out of the American military presence’s failures at improving its image with the people of Afghanistan. (As one local translator helpfully explains to McMahon and his team, “They call us ‘motherfucker’ all the time, and it is considered in our culture a very bad thing to fuck your mother.”) But as the film inches closer to McMahon’s downfall, it becomes more ham-fisted. Perhaps a more deftly made film would have made more than a self-satisfied observation out of the arbitrary circumstances of its main character’s ouster. Michod’s previous two films have been skillful and grim thrillers produced on low budgets in his native Australia; here, he ironically parallels his subject by planting his foot on unfamiliar ground with no exit strategy. The film exposes just how much of a wild goose chase the battle against the Taliban is, how do you defeat an enemy that are often nothing more than disgruntled locals who have had quite enough of American soldiers bombing civilian’s homes and killing their children, without committing genocide? The film makers have reflected this by showing the Gen. and his men embarking on a wild goose chase of Europe in a futile attempt to secure more troops to the cause and get some face to face communication with the President of the U.S. Being a dark comedy about this subject, the film puts their opinions about the Afghanistan conflict front and center. It was surprisingly critical of the Obama administration and I was fine with that. But they’re take is a little controversial and that’s probably contributed to the negative reviews. I liked the fact that they weren’t afraid to be critical or to point out some of the ridiculous situations the soldiers were put in. But the movie glosses over any positive effects that the mission might have had. I mean it couldn’t have been a unmitigated disaster. I get that this isn’t a documentary but I wish they could have at least shown a peek at the other side of the issue. As much as the first act of the movie dips its toes into goofy comedy, the ending of the film really brings things to an end on a somber note. It really drives home the distinct and defeatist nature of what the Afghanistan conflict turned into. The small action scene is intense and the fallout is heartbreaking. Don’t get me wrong, the film is watchable and entertaining with a good look, lots of questions, and steady acting. At end, however, I felt like the conflicted character Marine corporal Billy Cole who states his dilemma, which incidentally is restated in the song playing over the end credits, “I’m confused.” Yep, so is the movie and so am I. The cast gives impressive performances across the board, with Brad Pitt leading the charge with his most over the top performance yet. Pitt has always had great timing, and a gift for awkward confidence (see: Burn After Reading, Inglorious Basterds). Here, in Pitt’s hands, McMahon is a unique breed of a square-jawed bullshitter. Michod lets the actor play, and it’s to the film’s benefit as a centerpiece of performative silliness. Brad Pitt‘s portrayal is absurdly over the top and quite deliberately so in order to reflect the general’s absurd actions and attitude, his interactions with the other characters including the politicians are baffling and confusing which again reflects the baffling and incoherent nature of America’s policy towards Afghanistan and the Middle East. How do you wage bloody war and build a nation up at the same time? The two do not go hand in hand. Throughout the whole film, I kept wondering whether to sympathize or ridicule him. Meg Tilly is very good as McMahon’s wife of 30 years who points out to him that they have spent a total of 30 days together in 8 years. The rest of the cast, Alan Ruck, Anthony Michael Hall, Ben Kingsley, Emory Cohen, John Magaro, Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Scoot McNairy, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace & Will Poulter give in great performances. On the whole, ‘War Machine’ succeeds in moments of satire but a weird blend of thought provoking drama in the second half loosens its overall watch ability.
Directed – David Michôd
Rated – R
Run Time – 121 minutes