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In an interview with Moviefone.com, War Machine writer-director David Michod (known for the great gritty Aussie thrillers Animal Kingdom and The Rover) stated that he wanted his Afghan war satire to be tonally erratic. This makes sense as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan is an absurdist mess mixed with human suffering. Still, to do this approach, one must have a smooth hand to make it all come together. However, Michod — even when working from Michael Hastings’ acclaimed non-fiction book The Operators — lumbers weirdly from cartoonish comedy into ham-fisted dramatics. As a result, War Machine is entertaining on a scene by scene basis but ultimately doesn’t come together as a whole.
Brad Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon (a fictional stand-in for Stanley McChrystal). Sent into Afghanistan to run a counter-insurgency operation, he finds himself stymied by bureaucracy, the confused role of the US in the Middle Eastern country, and a Rolling Stone journalist (a typically great Scoot McNairy playing the Hastings stand-in).
On the positive front, the early passages of War Machine do hit comedically. Pitt is a gifted comedic actor (anyone who has seen Burn After Reading, another satire targeting U.S. government, is aware of this) and even if his characterisation of McMahon is as broad as an SNL character, he is fascinating to watch. Throughout his face remains unmoved, his stoic facial expression resembling more and more a stroke victim. Plus, he is surprisingly charming as the well-intentioned but dopey and deluded with self-pride McMahon.
Also, some of the satirical jabs in the first half do land. Gags about the American army’s failed humanitarian efforts in the Middle East are wickedly funny and cringey. At one point, a villager tells Pitt’s general in regards U.S. soldiers: “They call us ‘motherfucker’ all the time, and it is considered in our culture a very bad thing to fuck your mother”. Another great moment sees Pitt scream at an over-zealous defence diplomat – one who removed McMahon’s Afghan assistant from a dinner table in order to sit closer to the general: “this dinner is for Afghanistan … and you had the Goddamn gall to kick the only Afghan in the room off my table”. Something made extra funny by the fact Pitt is sitting next to the Afghanistan ambassador.
However, as it moves into its second half, War Machine loses spark on account of some structural and dramatic choices. Characters begin to appear only to spell out the message of the movie. Firstly, there’s Scoot McNairy’s narration which, despite the actor’s entertaining cadence, does only seem to function as exposition:
“It would have been nice if the conversation after had been about the failure of counter insurgency. Why we seem so desperate to be at war all the time? How maybe what we’re doing is just making more enemies all in the name of making America safe.”
Adding to this is a Tilda Swinton cameo as a German politician whose one scene only serves to sum-up Pitt’s entire character to the audience.
Also, McMahon is such a caricature. For instance, he asks McNairy’s journalist to be put on the cover of Rolling Stone next to Lady Gaga. Thus, when the movie asks the audience to get dramatically invested in his fall from grace or the slowly crumbling relationship between him and his wife, Jeanie (Meg Tilly), it feels strange. These more character based moments in the second half just come across as both comedically and dramatically inert.
Also, there’s the obligatory Full Metal Jacket battle scene in which we see the cost of war on human life. Although, the scene is excellently played by Will Poulter and LaKeith Stanfield as the U.S. soldiers and is muscularly staged by Michod (making one wish he had made a straight war movie instead), it feels at odds with the comedy of the early passages.
I’d argue War Machine is worth a look for Pitt’s strange performance and a handful of moments which work individually. However, its oddly preachy second-half keeps it from reaching the echelon of modern classic satires like Wag the Dog, Three Kings or Jarhead.
War Machine is available to stream on Netflix now.