Netflix’s War Machine is directed by David Michod (The Rover) and stars Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon and Sir Ben Kingsley as Hamid Karzai. The film is based on The Operators by Michael Hastings. He wrote it following the publication of his Rolling Stone article that led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, who General Glen MacMahon is based on. The narrator assumes the voice of journalist Michael Hastings with a seemingly tell-don’t-show policy concerning the plot. However, he does establish the tone of the movie at the very beginning, incidentally condemning the events of the movie from the get-go.
“Ah, America. You beacon of composure and proportionate response. You bringer of calm and goodness to the world.” – The Narrator, Sean Cullen.
Despite the narrator’s best efforts, no one seems to know what genre or tone the filmmakers were going for, including the filmmakers themselves. It begins like a bleak satire and trudges along into a procedural militaristic drama until it turns into a two hours waste of time. Brad Pitt plays McMahon like a caricature that he exaggerates beyond recognition in some scenes and tones down in others, like he is self-aware but doesn’t care. One would think if anyone was prepared to play a man of the military it would be Brad Pitt. His stand-out performances in Inglourious Basterds, Fury, and Allied seem like distant memories. Brad Pitt as McMahon is underwritten, poorly scripted, and one dimensional.
General McMahon carries an eternal squint as if he was mimicking Michael Scott from The Office parodying General Stanley McChrystal for the camera. He runs like he is doing “thigh exercises” that he learnt from Omar in Four Lions. War Machine’s biggest mistake is not committing to its tone and genre. It tries to do too much with very little plot. Wildly absurdist, it works well as a satire of militaristic bureaucracy, but it’s very inconsistent in its voice. It’s surprising that it was written and directed by the same person because it feels like it was crowdsourced. It legitimately criticizes the failure of leadership and operation in the Afghanistan war, but seems to miss the mark in understanding that otherwise competent individuals made those failures. Sir Ben Kingsley plays Hamid Karzai with great facial likeness, but acts more like his character Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3 than the former President of Afghanistan.
At one point General McMahon makes an important point about the difficulties of the war and notes the difference between insurgency and counter-insurgency and how America fits into that narrative. However, he arrives at the wrong conclusion and later learns that “You can’t build a nation at gunpoint”.
The most compelling performances in the movie come from Will Poulter (The Revenant) and Keith Stanfield (Atlanta) in the only combat sequence of the whole movie; it is short yet memorable, and depicts with good accuracy the tragedy of war and how disposable brown lives are, lives that they have somehow convinced themselves, they are saving.
It ends with a great cameo that I will not spoil for you. Though the ending is predictable, it is necessary and works well with the overarching plot of the movie.
War Machine is available to stream on Netflix right now.