SYNOPSIS: When a proud general is tasked with winning an unpopular war, he takes the challenge head-on, not knowing that hubris may be his own worst enemy.
‘War Machine’ is probably Netflix’s most high-profile original movie to date, not only because its budget of US$60 million is something only a traditional movie studio would spend but also because of A-list star Hollywood star Brad Pitt headlining the ensemble cast. Pitt not only stars, but also produces, this darkly comic war movie based upon Michael Hastings’ 2012 nonfiction book ‘The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Story of America’s War in Afghanistan’. That book grew out of a Rolling Stone article by Hastings in 2010, which saw the leader of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal talk shit about President Obama and led to his eventual dismissal. Some details here remain – such as McChrystal’s routine of running seven miles a day and sleeping but four hours – but writer-director David Michôd’s character study isn’t so much meant to be accurate as it is an offbeat riff on the real-life general.
Pitt plays that fictionalised version of McChrystal, named Gen. Glen McMahon, who believes in his heart that he was sent there to win the war, and was therefore appalled when told by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan as well as its Secretary of State that all the President (meaning Obama) wanted was to wind down the U.S.’s involvement in it within 18 months. To be sure, this wasn’t a man whose only mantra was might was right; on the contrary, he genuinely believed that the U.S. presence there could be for the good of the country – rooting out insurgents surely, but more than that, to build roads and schools so that Afghan citizens can have a better life – and counsels his jaded ground troops the same. “You can’t kill them and help them at the same time,” he says. “It’s just not possible!” There is certainly sense in the man’s strategy, whose show of force was largely in the offensive he led in Helmand province in a bid to weed out the Taliban insurgents once and for all.
You’d have seen in the trailers how Pitt portrays McMahon as something of a heightened macho caricature, with bluster and swagger meant to hint at the man’s hubris above all. This was after all, a a former Ranger who was both a straight-A student and a troublemaker at West Point, who had authored a well-regarded book called ‘One Leg at a Time Just Like Everyone Else’ and was beloved by the men serving under him because he wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. He was also surrounded by a reverential inner circle (played by such expert actors as Topher Grace, John Magaro, Anthony Michael Hall and Emory Cohen) who were there less to challenge his point-of-view than to reinforce it and pump up his ego. It takes a while getting used to Pitt’s puffed-up performance at the start (and you could even argue if the over-acting was even necessary in the first place), but thankfully the actor settles for a much more nuanced, even melancholic, portrait of his character as the story progresses.
In fact, Pitt’s deft delivery during these later scenes means that you’ll even come to sympathise his character. This was a man trained to fight wars, thrown into a conflict that many would argue was a zero-sum game right from the start with nary a victory in sight, forced to reconcile the political position back in the U.S. with the sentiments of the men he was commandeered to lead, and not given any face time with his commander-in-chief until the damning article was published. In particular, this was man who was lost amidst the vast machinery of war (hence the title) that he was ultimately powerless to fight against, and his frustrations – however insubordinate they may have been – were not misplaced. You could criticise how he defends the principle of counter-insurgency (COIN) or his military’s complicated strategy framework in front of a whole gallery of reporters in Europe while n tour to appeal for his coalition partners to increase their troop deployments right before the Helmand offensive, but was there some other way out for him or for the U.S. military at that point in the war?
And that is the whole point of Australian filmmaker David Michod’s third film (coming after the brilliant crime drama ‘Animal Kingdom’ and the post- apocalyptic thriller ‘The Rover’), which is intended less to satirise the man at the heart of the saga than the system that he was hapless to work within or against. Quite frankly, the blunt attempts at comedy are no more than distractions (including Ben Kingsley’s cameo as the country’s wily leader who seems more interested in getting his Blu-ray player to work than McMahon’s dream) and having a constant voiceover by fictionalised reporter Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) errs at telling too much. But though slightly dulled, there is still real bite in Michod’s critique of the war machine built out of the U.S.’s decade-long involvement in Afghanistan as well as the honest, well-intentioned soldiers like McMahon whose lens of traditional warfare was simply incongruous with the reality on the ground.
More than whether Netflix’s ‘War Machine’ is detrimental to moviemaking by disrupting the traditional cinematic model is the question if the film is worth its own weight, no matter which medium or channel it is being delivered on – and on the latter regard, Pitt’s latest movie represents an unequivocal yes. It does take its time to find its feet, but there is obviously a lot of context to set in order for us to understand the circumstances that Gen McMahon had to orientate himself to. So despite its flaws, we’d say this is one important and significant movie that you’ll want to invest two hours of your time in.
Review by Gabriel Chong