WAR MACHINE Review
Genre: Historical Drama, Comedy
Director: David Michôd
Set in the 2009 American conflict in Afghanistan, and based on the novel THE OPERATORS by Michael Hastings, Netflix’s WAR MACHINE features Brad Pitt’s inevitable fall from grace as the ultra-masculine, four-star general, Glenn McMahon. The film attempts to follow the style of the witty and historically informative THE BIG SHORT, with the same expositional narration, but ends up feeling too much like an amalgamation of scenes from different movies rather than a complete film. That being said, WAR MACHINE has some truly effective scenes, solid acting, and occasionally succeeds, but ultimately remains too unfocused and tonally confusing to craft a clear lesson for the audience.
McMahon’s goal is clear from the start: earn the trust of the Afghan people, and rebuild their nation with humvees patrolling their streets and guns pointed at their children. Despite the plan being undoubtedly flawed and idiotic, McMahon is extremely self-assured and positive: a radiating, bull-headed, American imperialist. The film’s narration tells us that he runs seven miles every morning, eats one meal a day, and (just a theory) probably poops once a week. Here, hubris oozes from every pore of McMahon’s being, where he acts as a general from a simpler time, unable to process the complexities of unconventional warfare. Despite this, his gung-ho attitude for nation-building through the sweat of his brow and the might of the American armed forces comes into conflict with the harsh realities of anti-insurgency and Middle-Eastern culture. Early on in the film, it becomes clear that through this same confidence McMahon has also built an extremely loyal, yes-man posse around himself.
I mean, his face doesn’t lie, he’s been holding in at least a fart for a week
Coupled with McMahon’s foolhardy plan and his posse’s unlimited confidence in their leader, the ineptitude of the movie’s characters is astounding. While they come off as slightly cartoonish due to writing that’s often shallow, there is a lot of talented acting in the group. Entertaining performances include Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon’s rage monster sidekick, Topher Grace as his PR guy, Emory Cohen as his quasi butler, and a few more names you may recognize. Many of these characters are introduced early on in the film, but serve little purpose in the narrative, where instead they are somewhat unsuccessfully tacked on with more meaningless dialogue and comedic relief than is necessary for a focused story. In the film’s defense, it seems that the ineptitude of these characters is meant to further highlight the impossibility of their mission, but often these characters can come off as annoying and unnecessary. Refreshingly, Ben Kingsley plays a strangely hilarious Hamid Karzai, who has seen American generals come and go, and offers a more skeptical prediction on McMahon’s success.
“Honestly Brad, I don’t feeling like saying my lines, so I’m just gonna stare at you until your eyebrows get tired.”
In contrast, where the film does succeed is in the latter part of its second act. Under McMahon’s orders, a mission is enacted to take back a region of Afghanistan from the Taliban. Without spoiling too much, the definition of insurgent becomes blurred, and the film more strongly appears to find its anti-war voice. Furthermore, the film’s cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, utilizes a fluid steadicam to create an intense atmosphere of suspense, while the viewer almost becomes the camera, placed into the role of a fellow marine forced to make tough decisions for survival. Admirably, Will Poulter takes on the role of the marine in charge of the rest of his squadron, while GET OUT actor Keith Stanfield plays the most nuanced of those on the front lines.
If the film wanted to have a greater, more relatable impact, perhaps more grounded characters would’ve helped. It’s a shame that the film relies so heavily on Pitt’s acting, as it isn’t as nuanced or sympathetic enough to propel the story forward. Instead, it’s clear that the marines should’ve taken the spotlight of the film. As shown in the film’s better scenes, they are the people that truly face the results of American interventionism, and their stories contain far more drama and complexities that should’ve been explored. McMahon is the one making hard decisions behind a safe, air-conditioned computer screen, but the marines are forced to suffer the consequences. WAR MACHINE is entertaining and technically impressive at moments, but will most likely not resonate with most viewers because it isn’t clear about what it’s really trying to say. As a result, it’s tough to say whether the movie is worth watching, but for specific scenes like the marine’s desert assault, it might just be—especially if you own a Netflix account with no need to buy an expensive movie ticket.