For years, generals thought they could solve conflict with troops, weapons, tanks, bombs and aggression. These days, especially in the Middle East, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and an inability to distinguish friends from foes make winning wars nearly impossible. War Machine reminds us of that.
The source material for this cautionary tale is Michael Hastings’ non-fiction book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. It was a New York Times bestseller. Hastings, a Rolling Stone journalist, spent a month in Europe and Afghanistan in 2010 tailing four-star General Stanley McChrystal and his troops. His findings were revealing, not shocking. It was like he exposed our worst thoughts, but not things we couldn’t imagine.
McChrystal and his men had no discretion. They candidly shared their likes and dislikes (President Obama’s handling of America’s longest war). Hastings, like a fly on the wall, wrote down what he saw and heard—with no filter. Anecdotes about Vice President Biden, General David Petraeus, diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai peppered his findings.
The task at hand for writer/director David Michod was to turn Hastings’ blow-by-blow journal into satire. The skilled Australian filmmaker of the crime/thriller Animal Kingdom, which earned actress Jacki Weaver an Oscar nom, is not known for writing or directing comedies. Hence the hitch in this parody, it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny (Blazing Saddles), supremely ironic (Thank You For Smoking) or outrageous (Zoolander). After sitting through two hours of it, you get the gist of the absurdity of war, not the humor in it.
General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) has been thrust into the conflict in Afghanistan. In his mind, he can bring the never-ending war to a conclusion with an additional 40,000 troops and straight talk with the villagers whose homes are being destroyed and families killed by the Taliban. His bravura has a naïveté that is almost dimwittedly charming. At least his wife Jeannie (Meg Tilly) thinks so. The men he leads, especially the foot soldiers, think differently. They’re the boots on the ground who never know where a bullet is coming from. They watch locals suffer and never feel properly supported by commanding officers, or the POTUS.
Following the long list of characters in this film is tricky. They pile on like desperate football players trapping a ball two inches from the end zone. But it doesn’t matter who they are, or who they may mirror from real life. Just listen to them complain and experience their fear and their plight becomes pronounced. When Glen contemplates the takeover of the Helmand province, these soldiers are the ones who risk their lives. And here is where some irony comes in, President Karzai (Ben Kingsley), as portrayed in the film, couldn’t be more blasé about the aftermath of a battle for Helmand or the U.S.’s involvement in a war that paralyzes his country.
Though comedy/satire is not his strong suit, Michod succeeds with the action scenes (soldiers taking Helmand), or formal official banquets sequences. At one sit-down dinner in particular, Glen chastises an overly ambitious U.S. military man who has taken the seat of an Afghan man. Glen is outraged that the only local at the table has been mistreated. Then someone points to another Afghanistan man who is at the table, and Glen looks sheepish.
The film reflects how oblivious General Stanley McChrystal and his men were to the consequences of having a snooping reporter observing all. These grown men partied like a fraternity on pledge night regardless. This is another moment of hubris that is odd, based on fact, but not funny.
Regardless of the film’s tonal issues, the production elements are solid: Editor Peter Sciberras cuts the film in a way that makes what you see completely coherent. You may or may not like what you view and hear, but you’ll understand it. The war scenes were shot in the United Arab Emirates and the geography is close enough to Afghanistan’s to make the exteriors seem authentic. Whether he’s shooting a mushroom-colored village with sunlight, or inside at a posh state dinner with artificial light, Dariusz Wolski makes the footage look just right. Production designer Jo Ford is equally adept with the interior design. His rooms never look like sets. Costume designer Jane Petrie’s interpretations of soldiers’ uniforms or Karzai’s sleeping clothes well represent who they are.
The cast of supporting characters is long, clear standouts are few: RJ Cyler (Me, Earl and the Dying Girl) plays soldier Andy Moon, who can’t hide his distain for the war or Glen. The scene in which he breaks from the troops to fish out a sniper is riveting. Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club) as Greg Pulver, plays the most disrespectful solider in the bunch, swearing and drinking like a man with one day to live. His belligerence is effective. Ben Kingsley, as Karzai, portrays the Afghanistan president as slightly loopy and distracted. Meg Tilly has a sweetness about her that makes you think Glen’s wife is living a life she never bargained for.
Brad Pitt as the lead actor tries desperately to find the humanity that lurks within General Glen McMahon. His Glen jogs like a stiff Forrest Gump, speaks like a politician and wields his power like he is privileged: “Only in war do they feel the true sense of power.” It’s a tough role to play. Pitt oddly expresses the general’s thoughts, notions and confusion, sometimes with verve, sometimes not. But still, at times it’s like he’s the only one in the cast who got the memo that said this film is suppose to be a satire.
Sometimes generals—Colin Powell, David Petraeus, Stanley Allen McChrystal—live in insular, parallel universes where their self-esteem, war strategies and expectations are not connected to reality. What this film tells you is that fossils like them, in the new millennium with the new media, may be their own worst enemies.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com.