David Michod’s War Machine is a film with a personality crisis. It has been described as a satire, although its critiques of U.S. military policy are missing a satirical sting. The picture is set amid the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, but there’s only one actual combat scene. And while the film follows the story of Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), a badass general who is brought to Afghanistan in 2009 to help win the war, and finds himself butting heads – although it could be argued that, in this case, it’s a good thing – with bureaucracy, the picture is only moderately interested in how politics work. So, how could one classify War Machine?
For starters, it’s all over the place. As the movie opens, Pitt’s McMahon has arrived in Afghanistan with a whole team of yes men in tow – these include the dedicated Greg (Anthony Michael Hall), PR guy Matt (Topher Grace), right-hand-man Cory (John Magaro) and nutcase Pete (Anthony Hayes). It’s never exactly clear whether we are supposed to relate to this entourage. The film, however, is narrated by Sean (Scoot McNairy), a reporter with Rolling Stone whom we don’t see in the flesh until a ways in to the film, which is another of its flaws. For much of the movie, we have no idea who is narrating the story or why.
Pitt is a very good actor who often shines when given the right material. But McMahon is a character whose only seeming character trait is that, much like a certain someone in U.S. politics, feels the need to win all the time. To make matters worse, the filmmakers have Pitt doing a strange impression of his character from Inglourious Basterds. The character seems like someone who would have been better suited to a Coen Brothers movie as opposed to a film that isn’t even quite sure whether it’s a satire.
The film – which is based on Michael Hastings’ “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” – takes a dim view of all involved in the war on terror. Everyone from Washington, D.C. is portrayed as feckless, while the military characters are seen as true to their cause. However, that cause happens to be McMahon’s obsession with conducting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, a move that is portrayed in the picture as being foolhardy. There’s a good movie to be made about U.S. intervention in foreign countries – in fact, there have already been some good ones – but War Machine never settles on a tone or, for lack of a better word, thesis.
Michod is a talented director, although I’m basing my praise for him primarily on his debut, the gritty Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom. His post apocalyptic The Rover was visually stimulating, but didn’t add up for me and is a mixed bag.
There’s one sequence late in War Machine that nearly puts the film on track. In the picture’s one combat scene, a group of young soldiers are sent in to a particularly rough spot and one soldier, temporarily losing his bearings, heads off by himself, discovering along the way the cost of war. It’s a powerful sequence that provides an example of what had previously been missing from the picture. Otherwise, War Machine is a series of ingredients that could have made for a better movie, but never pay off.