Netflix release doesn’t fire on all cylinders.
Brad Pitt remains an actor worth watching. He can be compelling and enjoyable even when he finds himself playing a disappointing character in a lackluster movie, and this is precisely what occurs in writer-director David Michôd’s War Machine, which launches on Netflix on May 26th.
The movie, which is “inspired” by Michael Hastings’s non-fiction work, The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, is seemingly meant to be a dark comedy. Instead, however, it plays out as a hollow, not terribly funny, drama, offering the tale of four-star General Glen McMahon (Pitt), his staff, and the impossible job they were given of turning around the war in Afghanistan in 2009.
One of the many frustrating features of War Machine is that the movie itself is aware of the impossibility of the task, and McMahon at minimum is aware of the difficulty of it, but he and his team proceed anyway, believing they can make things right. An opening voiceover description of McMahon, provided by Scoot McNairy’s Rolling Stone reporter, explains that McMahon feels like the war wasn’t being won because it wasn’t being led. The issue, of course, lies in how his leadership will be better, because while McMahon himself explains why traditionally counter-insurgency doesn’t work, he still takes actions as though he is going to be able to change things this time.
Whatever in-depth reasoning behind McMahon’s logic may exist in the film is buried under what can best be described as fluff. War Machine lays out McMahon and his staff’s characteristics in that aforementioned voiceover at the beginning of the movie at the same time that it lays out the impossibility of fixing the problems in Afghanistan. This voiceover is funny and genuine and unquestionably the highlight of the movie which then spins its wheels for two hours showing how McMahon isn’t going to fix anything but is going to try to anyway until the inevitable occurs.
War Machine is, of course, careful about the names it uses for its characters, fictionalizing some of them, but the associations are clear (even if one doesn’t know that the movie is inspired by Hastings’ book). But, whatever the general’s name may be in the film, the audience is never allowed on the inside of this character portrayed by Pitt. He is a gruff military man who is played for laughs; a guy who, yes, believes in his country and wants to do the right thing, but to whom very little is added after the voiceover. It is a caricature of a military leader, but not an insightful one. And while that same voiceover may introduce the staff which surrounds McMahon, they are never developed further.
Even that which is not explicitly mentioned in the voiceover, like McMahon’s lacking time for his family, is abundantly clear from him being out of the country for so long. Thus when we do meet his wife (Meg Tilly), it isn’t surprising to learn that he hasn’t spent a lot of time with her through the years.
As a whole, War Machine regularly fails to be clear on whether it’s going for insight or a joke (or the holy grail of both). Is Sir Ben Kingsley’s Hamid Karzai sneezy and sick because Karzai sneezes a lot in the real world (if indeed he does, this reviewer has no knowledge of it one way or the other) or because someone thought it would be funny? Perhaps it is actually meant to be an allusion to some sickness within the nation-building task itself. Kingsley’s character is only in a few scenes in the film so this potentially interesting question is left to flounder.
Certainly much of the film is a comedy, but this is also a war movie and features some serious moments, including a battle. However, there is nothing in that battle to separate it from so many other sequences in war films. It is sad and tragic, but too easy to lump in with what has come before.
Maybe though it isn’t about the characters or where they wind up, or even the results of the mission, as much as it is about the journey. War Machine is moderately more successful on that score, offering a number of chuckles throughout, whether it’s poking fun at the military or politics or anything else. McMahon and his staff may never rise terribly far above caricatures, but experiencing Pitt’s General work his way through moment after moment is enjoyable even if it isn’t deep.