War Machine : In understanding Netflix’s new business model of supporting auteurs by funding their unfundable projects, Australian Director David Michôd seems to be a perfect choice to support. Having previously directed three feature films - Crossbow, Animal Kingdom, and The Rover - Michôd has only been a household name since 2010 with Animal Kingdom, but none of his films have exactly lit up the box office. Rather, they have either barely scraped back their production budget (Animal Kingdom) or were complete flops (The Rover). Thus, it makes sense that Netflix, a studio that is fashioning itself as a haven for men such as Bong-joon Ho (Okja) or Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), to be the one to fund Michôd’s latest narrative feature. His first film set outside of Australia, War Machine also features his first time working with an A-list Hollywood star, Brad Pitt. Unfortunately, Michôd finds issues along the way in this bumpy and largely flat satirical war film that lacks that punch to really work.
This is certainly not a MASH-tier satire. Compared to Robert Altman’s classic satirical war film starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, Michôd’s War Machine certainly bares similarities. Depicting men partying and taking a surgical approach to their unwinnable conflict, Michôd’s film is less consistent and committed than Altman’s film that inspired the television series of the same name. Instead of fully committing to absurdity and satire, War Machine often tries to take an overdone message and serious tone that is consistently at odds with its depictions. With Pitt’s General Glen McMahon (based on Stanley McChrystal) tasked with managing the war until it ends, the film shows this man with delusions of grandeur where he can somehow still win the war. Paired with a constantly angry Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall and based on Michael Flynn), a Dumb & Dumber loving Afghan President (Ben Kingsley), and a frat boy marketing manager calling the shots that led to their downfall (Topher Grace), the film seems to be a classic telling of the incompetent men tasked with a war that would be unwinnable even if they were competent. Unfortunately, they think they are those competent men and steam full-on towards disaster. Yet, the film never commits to satire. Instead, it shows McMahon teaching counterinsurgency, the struggles of identifying the enemy, and cliche battle scenes where they only alienate themselves further and accidentally kill civilians. It is a film with no clear direction. It initially tries to be tongue-in-cheek and point out the obtuse nature of the leaders and the insufferable bureaucracy at play, but it counters it by preaching messages about why we cannot win and the dangers afoot in Afghanistan. Not only is it not subtle, but it has been done to death in recent years with every film about the Iraq or Afghanistan war. From the get-go, the film had to set itself apart from the minutia of other war films this decade that depict the struggles in finding a war with no clearly defined enemy, but unfortunately, its initially satirical take collapses into a sea of war movie cliches where Corporal Billy Cole (Keith Stanfield) is reduced to being a thematic recitation machine where he just spouts off about whatever David Michôd wanted to communicate with the film.
Pitt’s odd performance. While Michôd is unable to figure out whether he wants to focus on the absurdity of General Glen McMahon and his henchmen’s actions in Afghanistan or if he wants to make a war film that preaches about its futility, Brad Pitt is fully committed to the satire. With an odd accent that makes it sound like Pitt’s voice is fighting against his vocal chords to get out and a half-squinting face that makes it look like he is trying to imitate Forest Whitaker, Pitt’s performance is hard to pin down. In the satirical moments, his odd delivery and delusion are hysterical. In the serious moments, his delusion is chilling (which is a good thing) but wholly ill-fitting. With Pitt going for a truly physical and comedic performance, Michôd’s decision to drop him into serious moment after serious moment speaks more to Michôds delusion than his main character’s. Pitt’s performance would be fine for a film that ran unabashedly into being a fully blown war satire. Unfortunately, Michôd tried to shove Pitt’s circular performance into a sharply square hole and the end result is a film that has no idea whether it should have been funnier or more serious. Given the actions of McMahon’s men, the former would make sense. But, given the gravity of the war as depicted, the latter would make more sense. Unfortunately, Pitt opted for the former and Michôd opted for a sprinkle of both elements. The end result is not a dark war comedy. Instead, it is a muddled artist’s representation of what comedy should look like and a rehash of every war film ever. There is no voice here, just a tongue-in-cheek turn by Pitt who clearly never got the memo that Michôd was lost as to how to approach this one.
Strong characterization. Perhaps as a by-product of Michôd’s inability to strike a balance between Pitt’s full-bore comedic performance and the film’s deadly serious events, the film’s characters are similarly imbalanced to their betterment. In depicting General McMahon, Michôd shows a man who is a smart and good man but is wholly incompetent to actually lead a war. Working his whole life to become a general and to be in war, McMahon runs for seven miles daily and does not expect his men to go anywhere he would not go himself. He thinks against the grain and is determined to work with the Afghans in order to restore order and bring democracy to the region. His ideas are admirable and he knows the problems with insurgents that he faces. He tries to be diplomatic with the people and aims to take regions others advise him to give up on. If somebody says a location is unimportant strategically, his resolve to take that region only grows stronger. For a general, he is a man that thinks outside of the box and sets his sights on goals that others claim are impossible to reach. In this endeavor, he is absolutely fearless. However, he has no idea how to actually accomplish this goal. Surrounding himself with absolute incompetence and forced to deal with bureaucracy, he tries to take cities with very little in the way of a set plan. This only exacerbates his own incompetence. Though he knows the situation in the country backwards and forwards, he is not the man to lead the war because he runs into the night with a gun in hand even though he knows it will not work. He advocates for including the Afghans and preaching that, though we have guns, we are there to help. He knows this will not work, but he does it anyways. His idealism and odd naivety encourage him to try anyways, but it is an exercise in absolute futility. As becomes readily apparent through the course of the film, McMahon is a smart man, but his inability to cut his loses or focus on battles that are winnable leave him trying to run backwards up the steepest hill in the world. He knows the end result he wants and just assumes throwing men and guns at the problem will be the means. Unfortunately, he does so while knowing that it is not the means and, instead, they must rely upon diplomacy. So, instead of choosing, he opts to do both simultaneously. Naturally, this only leads to a mess and further muddies the waters in the region.
Bureaucracy. One of the central themes of War Machine is that of bureaucracy. With Greg Pulver lashing out against Barack Obama for not being a leader whenever he is given the chance and with all of the men expressing frustration with how the war is being managed from the top, the film is an apt depiction of the bureaucracy of war. Balancing public opinion and what must be done to win the war, the men are constantly faced with dilemmas that make their job incapable. In war, they must wait until they see an armed combatant to shoot in fear of hitting a civilian. Unfortunately, by the time they can see the weapon, it has already been fired at them. In the war room, the men must wait on deploying the necessary troops until after the election to avoid worsening the situation in Afghan politics. At every turn, bureaucracy has neutered the military’s ability to act. While pausing and thinking is not necessarily a wholly bad thing, it can be fatal if done at the wrong time. Michôd’s film shows this brilliantly and is unflinching in its major criticism: either do it or do not do it at all. While McMahon is a man who has no idea how to get the results he wants, he is also a man tasked with doing a job but not being given the resources to do the job. If America wants to get out of Afghanistan, then get out of there. Stop deploying more troops and giving more resources to the region. Just go cold turkey and retreat tomorrow. If they want to restore democracy to the region, then they must go full bore and deploy everybody. While both have strengths and weaknesses, War Machine shows the true problems bureaucracy has brought. Pulling out and admitting defeat may be smart, but would ruin the decade plus of work in the region. Going full bore again would only exacerbate the problem with insurgents, but would actually showcase a commitment to the region that politicians preach. As a result, they do a little bit of both, so the whole things get bungled. It is stuck somewhere in the middle with nobody able to actually act and end the war. Summing this up in an encounter between McMahon and a man where the man explains that America will not let Afghanistan grow cotton because it would compete with American manufacturers, the film highlights the absurdity behind wanting to fix Afghanistan, but not actually letting it be fixed. Instead, they keep the status quo where the answer to the crop and economical problems are answered instead by the simple answer, “so we grow heroin instead.”
Comment on both its central character and America. Though Australian, Michôd’s pulse on America’s constant state of war is communicated terrifically through the character of Glen McMahon. While the film does hit it a bit on-the-nose with dialogue that calls our attention to the fact that men such as McMahon live for war and later dialogue about how America is always at war, the film does manage to compare the two quite subtly. By the end, it is clear that McMahon and his struggle is intended to be a microcosm for America’s current foreign policy. A machine who works out daily has worked his whole life to be where he is now, a man who is married to war, and constantly dealing with negative headlines abroad, McMahon is a man who is committed to being in war. Similarly, America faces all of the same issues and seems to manufacture reasons to stay in the war. As Tilda Swinton’s German politician points out, the war was with Al-Qaeda, but their presence in Afghanistan is now diminished. If the problem is insurgents now, then that was not what the war was intended to be about in the beginning. Instead, the mission changes constantly with it resembling a game of whack-a-mole instead. Rather than pull out of the country, we are instead left with a constant state of war that will not end, as shown by the appointing of Bob White (Russell Crowe and based on David Petraeus) after McMahon’s sea of controversy comes back to bite him. Things never end in Afghanistan. They just change with people swapped out on our side as interchangeably as the enemy.
Unable to strike an appropriate balance between satire and its serious subject matters, David Michôd’s War Machine may have some very apt criticisms regarding the perpetual state of war that America finds itself in, but is unable to find the right approach or balance. Relying too heavily on war movie cliches, unable to utilize Pitt’s tongue-in-cheek performance, and unable to approach many of its themes in a subtle fashion, War Machine ends up being a mess of a film and the first misstep of Michôd’s career.