Typically, when someone or something is described as a "machine," it is meant as a compliment that conveys efficiency and power and tenacity. However, machines are not always efficient or powerful; they are sometimes badly designed, inefficient, bulky, and awkward, and they break down. Machines that were top of the line in one era become outdated and wasteful in another. And even a well-designed machine can be a disaster when put to the wrong use. A jackhammer, after all, is a great machine for breaking up asphalt, but not so great for brushing one's teeth.
The title of David Michd uneven satire War Machine, which is based on the late Michael Hastings's book The Operators about the exploits of General Stanley McChrystal, plays with those distinctions to underscore its fundamental point about the futility of American military involvement in the Middle East, particularly the war in Afghanistan. The "machine" of the title refers to both the American military as a whole-the greatest and most technologically sophisticated fighting force the world has ever known-and the film's McChrystal stand-in, General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), the decorated, experienced warrior who is put in the unenvious role of commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. McMahon, who has been nicknamed "The Lion King" and "The Glenimal" by the dedicated men under his command, is in many ways an ideal military leader: intelligent, strategic, commanding, determined, and unrelenting, he believes resolutely in the fight he has been put in charge of and is fully confident of eventual victory. And, had he been a general during World War II where battle lines were clearly drawn and enemies wore distinctive uniforms, he might have been the next Patton. Unfortunately, McMahon is tasked with wrapping up the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, which by 2009 (when the film takes place) had dragged on for eight years and was mired in a lingering stalemate between the coalition military presence and a small, but deeply entrenched insurgency that was difficult to discern from the general population.
Like Hastings's book, which expanded on his infamous Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General," War Machine is narrated by a freelance journalist, in this case named Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) who, as Hastings did with McChrystal, travels with McMahon and his team and chronicles their activities (Hastings based his book on 20 hours of recorded interviews). Cullen is young and cynical, and he frames the action with a detached sense of skepticism that calls everything McMahon does into question. Of course, the film is able to rest comfortably on the secure hindsight that much of what was being done in Afghanistan was doomed to, if not abject failure, certainly disappointment, which makes McMahon's enthusiasm and determination comical, rather than inspiring or rousing.
Pitt plays McMahon as a cross between Lt. Aldo Raine, the squinting, jut-jawed Nazi hunter he played in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2011) and George C. Scott's blustery General Buck Turgidson from Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964). He keeps one eye constantly cocked, his brow furrowed, and speaks with a deep-throated growl, which makes McMahon both a formidable presence and something of a joke. When he goes for a seven-mile jog every morning, he runs with his arms dangling like a bow-legged gorilla, and despite extreme confidence in his military endeavors, he is amusingly awkward in social situations, never so much as when he is briefly reunited with his wife (Meg Tilly), who he has seen less than 30 days each of the past eight years. But this doesn't mean that he isn't beloved by the men who serve under him, particularly Lt. Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes), his righthand man and biggest cheerleader; Major General Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), the anger-management-challenged Director of Intelligence; and Colonel Cory Staggart (John Magaro), his executive officer. McMahon is also surrounded by various American politicians (two prominent ones played by Alan Ruck and Griffin Dunne), whose cynical pragmatism runs counter to the general's unbending resolve, and he must deal directly with Afghan President Karzai (Ben Kingsley), who is depicted as a paper tiger who just wants to play at being a leader, rather than actually lead.
Interestingly, movies are much like machines, as well, with multiple moving parts that have to work in synch to be effective, and War Machine is nothing if not a film that is often out of synch. At times, it feels like Michd, who previously wrote and directed the well-received Australian thrillers Animal Kingdom (2010) and The Rover (2014), is making several different films at the same time, all of which convey the same fundamental message about the futility of using American military might to win the trust of a country on the other side of the world (as Peter Davis did so powerfully in his 1974 Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds), but in starkly different terms. For long stretches Michd is able to maintain a consistent tone of absurdist comedy that works quite marvelously; while it doesn't reach for the levels of surreal farcicality seen in other war satires like Dr. Strangelove or Mike Nichols's criminally underrated Catch-22 (1970), it manages to be both humorous and insightful in its best moments. But then, at other points, it becomes something quite different, particularly in its final stretch when Michd turns it into a conventional war movie by following a squad of Marines tasked with securing the dangerous Helmand province, which is known to harbor insurgents. Michd manages the action well, but it feels like an entirely different film that doesn't quite mesh with what we have already seen. Had he gone further in contrasting the real violence of war with the officious bureaucracies that order it, Michd might have had something really memorable. As is, War Machine is much like McMahon: great on paper and noble in intention, but not quite fit for the task at hand.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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