War Machine | David Michôd | May 26, 2017 – streaming on Netflix
War Machine is based on The Operators, a non-fiction book written by American journalist Michael Hastings about the firing of United States Army General Stanley McChrystal. Director and writer David Michôd (The Rover, Animal Kingdom) has taken Hastings’ work and given it a fictionalized reworking, changing McChrystal’s name to Gen. Glen McMahon. The film is supposed to be a satire of these events, but the tone of the film delivered by Michôd is an uneven mixed-bag that is many things all at once, but never quite a complete whole.
Michôd curiously drops us into War Machine through the use of a voiceover, only we don’t know who exactly is spelling out the plot for us (a clear violation of “Show, Don’t Tell”), which is a rather conspicuous way to start the film. The mysterious voice explains to us that McMahon is tasked with how to handle the war operation in Afghanistan after the election of President Barack Obama, who is telling the world that the war will be over soon, just as he’s sending them more troops. This mixed message leaves McMahon and his team of soldiers at a loss of what to do, to find meaning in this seemingly meaningless war that they sense they won’t have a role in for much longer.
We spend time with McMahon and get to know him as a passionate longtime leader who lives and breathes red, white, and blue. He’s supported by his passionate team, which includes Cory Staggart (John Magaro), Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes), Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen), Andy Moon (RJ Cyler), Badi Basim (Aymen Hamdouchi), Matt Little (Topher Grace), and Simon Ball (Daniel Betts). There’s a great deal of respect given to him by his men, but with those above him calling the shots, particularly with the newly appointed commander-in-chief, McMahon has found himself strangely surrounded by a true lack of purpose for the first time in his career.
Their role in Afghanistan is no longer clear. They want to help bring stability in structure, but they only receive opposition and create more problems. In one memorable scene, McMahon is explaining to a group of villagers what kind of new stability that can offer, and one villager explains that roads and schools are indeed good things, but it will only bring more bad things the longer they are there, so he pleads with them to leave. It’s this conflict of purpose that acts as a burden to McMahon and becomes his driving force.
The concept and themes surrounding War Machine are clear, but it’s the way that Michôd navigates through the story that leaves you frustrated rather than inspired. The story never quite gels into one thing but feels like a few different fragmented parts thrown together. The fact that we don’t learn who narrates the voiceover until about halfway through is the first troubling sign, as it drops you into the film in a cold manner that doesn’t quite pay off as well as they must have intended.
The main saving grace of War Machine is the rather impressive cast that they assembled. Along with the names previously mentioned as a part of McMahon’s crew, the cast also includes Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Lakeith Stanfield, Ben Kingsley, Meg Tilly, Scoot McNairy, and Tilda Swinton. While the film’s uneven pace and ever-changing tone left me mixed, there are particular scenes or performances that elevate the material. Brad Pitt’s performance does often tread the line between being too much of a cartoony stereotype, especially when it comes quite close to his performance as Lt. Aldo Raine in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Even though he may overplay a hand or two, Pitt finds a quite sense of melancholy towards the end, which added some heft to the performance as a whole. Pitt has no trouble carrying the film on his back. It’s just that the rest of the film’s unevenness bogs it down.
While many people will be obsessing over Netflix’s acquisition and role in its release (as well as its $60 million budget), War Machine is a decently told film that struggles to ever find proper footing of tonal stability. It has flashes of potential greatness about the crazy structure of war, but never quite finds it. While the cast and topic certainly make it worth watching, you can’t help but feel like this was a wasted opportunity.