“I better like what it is you’re writing.”
There are only so many new ideas under the sun, and so it is within the niche genre of “American military satire”. One classic towers above the rest, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and though much has changed in the decades since its 1964 release, many of its stringent critiques continue to hold true. As the Fallout video game franchise says, “war never changes”, so it may be historical continuity as much as prescience that keeps that classic relevant through today. But surely there must still be ways to reinvent the humor, or new filmic methods for capturing the absurd bombastic nature of egotistical men and their hunger for firepower.
War Machine’s chief issue isn’t even the unoriginality. The main concern is that this supposed satire jumps between a thousand microscopic tones and genres, shifting music, performance and direction seemingly at will. David Michod’s last piece, The Rover was also deeply flawed but more for its consistent plodding nature. That film dragged, this one scurries but it does so in a way that diminishes nearly every angle it strives for while examining a recent piece of history.
That story, which may come as a plot twist to those wildly unfamiliar with politics in the early Obama years, centers around General Stanley McChrystal and a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine, Michael Hastings. Except here, apparently for legal reasons, the officer is named Glen McMahon and the writer is Sean Cullen. But many of the details are the same. Obama enlists McMahon to oversee a new direction for the war in Afghanistan, though that freshly trod path looks eerily similar to the previous one (or as Ben Kinglsey’s Hamid Karzai puts it, “sounds a lot like the old direction”). Counterinsurgency is the mission, and this is a fairly potent set-up for a scathing window into the modern military. Attempting to root out insurgents while aiding civilians often felt like a paradox in practice, given how little those civilians wanted the Americans around.
War Machine introduces that chaotic gusto with the rock-n-roll accompanied first look at McMahon, played by a cartoonish and blustering Brad Pitt. The actor has previously given one of the best comedic performances in one of the most richly potent send-ups of American government, Burn After Reading. Here he’s shilling out to the rafters and the rest of the film can never quite keep up. But it doesn’t really appear to want to be as outlandish as its central portrait. Most of the details, the critiques, the points of the film are laid out via voice over which crumbles both the comedy and the political motivations. Though the narration is eventually given a slight edge of “unreliable”, too much has already been hammered home by spelling out things that were plenty clear on their own.
Take an early scene that finds McMahon arguing with a bunch of suits from Washington. He’s fairly condescending and the men come across as stodgy, shallow and uninvolved. Then, the voice over tells us exactly what McMahon thinks of these folks from D.C. Given that Pitt’s facial expressions are as loud as a mortar bomb, there’s simply no reason to add on, heaving excess onto excess. The delivery doesn’t add any humor, nor does cultivate any atmosphere.
That last point is vital, because honestly only about half of this film is really going for a satirical bent. Occasionally it lapses into pure dramatics, milking McMahon’s marriage for unearned pathos with lilting music and long pauses in dialogue. Not only is it difficult to reconcile those emotional beats with Pitt’s broad SNL-esque caricature, but the film has done nothing up to this point to make us believe we should be taking any of this seriously. Once that turn occurs, things become much more serious, including a sequence with Marines that isn’t as tense as it is cliché. To pull from another Kubrick film, Full Metal Jacket, you may be surprised to learn that war has horrific causalities that take an immense toll on the soldiers.
This may have felt timely had it been released shortly after the shocking Rolling Stone piece that wound up ending McChrystal’s career. And it should feel at least somewhat relevant given that Anthony Michael Hall’s Greg Pulver is loosely based on Michael Flynn who is in one-third of every headline in 2017. Maybe all of this just feels a little less funny now; War Machine is deeply critical of Obama, but didn’t foresee how much more terrifying leadership would become. But as Strangelove, and countless other political artworks that have lasted the test of time prove, timeliness is only half of the battle.
All of the points made here, repeatedly and didactically at times, have been made elsewhere, throughout history. Because at the core of War Machine is desire to turn McMahon into a mythical figure; less awe-inspiring, more Icarus. He is portrayed as a warning of what happens when ego meets gunpowder and when a lack of communication curdles into internal divisions. The film wants to turn him into a thing that stands for many things, simultaneously taking false jobs at humanization. Perhaps the goal was to figure out how a person ends up like this, and what the consequences are for the entire world. Unfortunately, anything that thoughtful is lost among the bombastic performances, the manipulative music, the montage-heavy editing. In capturing many tendrils of a deadly mess of a conflict, War Machine creates a fine mess of its own.