‘War Machine’: Film Review
The latest addition to the gallery of darkly comic films designed to make the case for the absurdity of war, War Machine has trouble maintaining a steady tone, but its climactic, sobering assault ultimately hits the target. In his desire to simultaneously portray and mock the authority figures in charge of the American war effort in Afghanistan (now the longest armed conflict in American history), writer-director David Michod is clearly trying to channel the Stanley Kubrick of Dr. Strangelove, as well as other satiric works like M*A*S*H, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, Three Kings and Wag the Dog. Despite its troublesomely inconsistent tone, this Netflix presentation starring and co-produced by Brad Pitt, which will premiere May 26 in theaters as well as on home screens, still discharges sufficient firepower to keep viewers pinned to their chairs.
After his striking debut with the ferocious Australian gangster tale Animal Kingdom and the bleak dystopian action drama The Rover, Michod employs his biggest canvas yet on behalf of this adaptation of the late Michael Hastings’ stinging 2012 book, The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. And how could the result be anything but a head-shaking lament for the way the best and the brightest, once again, think they have the answer for how to win a counterinsurgency war against enemies who aren’t going anywhere, while everyone knows the occupiers will one day pack up their tents and head home?
As have some of his august directorial forebears, Michod works in a muscular, vigorous style that attempts to merge black comedy with grim and violent realism. The former is rather too broadly insisted upon at the outset by the borderline outlandish smirking of Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a Yale-educated, medal-festooned veteran who assures one and all that, after eight years of American involvement in the country, “We’ll win this thing!” Yee-haw! Yes, sir! Right away, sir!
The way a platinum-haired, ultra-buff Pitt plays him, McMahon comes off as something of a freak at first, a man who runs seven miles before breakfast, barely sleeps and insists that the U.S. will ultimately prevail, not thanks to immense firepower, but because of the “unassailable power of our ideals.” Although President Obama has already stated that no more troops will be sent into the godforsaken conflict, McMahon insists upon 40,000 to do the job. The number the general eventually gets is a lot closer to his than to the president’s.
It helps to know that McMahon is all-but-in-name the very same as the outspoken four-star General Stanley A. McChrystal, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009-10 until he was fired by Obama. First things first: McChrystal looks nothing like Brad Pitt. Second, fictionalizing a character you’re deriding helps avoids lawsuits. But it’s worth pondering whether Michod was constrained in perhaps less visible ways by a need to adhere to some degree to the truth of actual events,…