War Machine: let battle commence in Netflix assault on cinema
Not funny enough to be satire, not realistic enough to count as political commentary, not exciting enough to work as a war movie, David Michôd’s supposedly Helleresque romp, released on , is an imperfect non-storm of unsuccess.
Loosely adapted by Michôd from book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, this is a fictionalised account of US General Stanley A McChrystal’s experiences during that conflict – McChrystal was the overall commander until he was for making rashly critical remarks about his administration to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine. It is a long, rambling anti-climactic movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be, in which the hero learns nothing, and we, the audience, are encouraged only to learn what we are assured we know already: that the mission in Afghanistan was an endgame doomed to failure.
At the centre of this is producer-star , who goes cartoonishly over the top in his look-away-now performance as the general, renamed Glen McMahon, nicknamed the “Glenimal”. He is renowned and admired for his straight-talking, can-do attitude – loved by the men under his command and, of course, disliked by the Washington pointy-heads and pen-pushers.
Brad Pitt speaks about his divorce from Angelina Jolie and his heavy drinking
Pitt’s military chief is like the crazy-grandpa version of the grizzled second world war types he played in Quentin Tarantino’s (2009) and David Ayer’s Fury (2014). He struts about manically, has a habit of taking early-morning runs in an extremely unflattering pair of shorts, speaks in a growly down-home drawl with a corner of his mouth is permanently twisted up in a kind of hillbilly grimace. That corner is perhaps home to an invisible corncob pipe, like the one smoked by General Douglas MacArthur. Pitt’s performance is an odd assemblage of second world war cliches, a half-remembered version of . It is nothing like the real General Stanley McChrystal, who can be : he has a rasping voice, but otherwise looks like a smart, relaxed human being. That needn’t matter, but Pitt’s wacky performance never satisfactorily answers the laugh-with/laugh-at question, and his pantomime becomes wearing.
The movie follows him as he is appointed overall commander, robustly bringing to bear his confidence and passion for the job, and sweeping aside the bland and cynical Brits. He is convinced that a real military victory can be enforced over the insurgents, but first he has to instil some urgency and energy into the lackadaisical flags-of-all-nations team under his command and ignore as best he can the “Eurosexuals” he sees on his early morning run. But the main order of business is getting some more troops. A cunningly contrived TV interview embarrasses Washington into giving him some of what he needs: then he has to go on a tricky diplomatic tour of Europe, to convince the slippery types out there to put up some of their own troops to join his fighting force.
After cliched scenes of American military commanders speaking through interpreters to suspicious and hostile natives, the movie goes on a long, tiresome, dramatically inert detour around European capitals, with the Glenimal in the company of his Vegas-style Rat Pack entourage: including good-ol’-boy second-in-command Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), smoothie PR Matt Little (Topher Grace), embedded Rolling Stone reporter Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), and token Afghan civilian Badi Basim (Aymen Hamdouchi). And finally, in the last half-hour, there is some actual war-film-type fighting, from which Pitt is frustratingly absent.
The film does have some good points. Ben Kingsley gets one or two laughs in his cheeky performance as President Hamid Karzai: the whole movie might have been better as a bromance between Hamid and the Glenimal. has an interesting, if slightly supercilious, cameo as a German politician who questions the general about his personal motivation. But the best and most human performance comes from Meg Tilly as the general’s neglected wife, Jeannie, who has a tremendous, quietly dignified speech, talking to her husband over dinner in Paris, quietly upbraiding him for never being home, and saying that she is proud of him: “I’m proud of me, too … ”
This movie never earns the sentimental respect we are presumably expected to pay to its hero, and Pitt’s wacky caricature leaves you unsure whether he is being celebrated or satirised. sinks into a quagmire of its own making.