War Machine (Preview)
Reviewed by Glenn Heath Jr.
Produced by Ian Bryce, Dede Gardner, Brad Pitt, and Jeremy Kleiner; directed by David Michôd; screenplay by David Michôd; cinematography by Dariusz Wolski; edited by Peter Sciberras; production design by Josephine Ford; starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Topher Grace, Alan Ruck, Ben Kingsley, and Meg Tilly. Color, English and Pashto dialogue with English subtitles, 122 min. A Netflix Original Film.
Can satire be effective in the age of Donald J. Trump? This vexing question might have seemed unfathomable just a year ago, but our new normal (fake news, petulant tweet storms, covert legislative sessions) suggests that the great American experiment now resembles something closer to a national lampoon. Differentiating between reality and caricature has become next to impossible, making the job of satirist all the more challenging.
Late-night-television hosts like Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver have had a field day ridiculing the Trump Administration’s hypocrisy and bigotry while preaching to the left-leaning choir. Saturday Night Live has responded with clever skits featuring Melissa McCarthy embodying the insecure rage of press secretary Sean Spicer, Alec Baldwin pointlessly pouting as Trump, and Kate McKinnon transforming into an opportunistically salacious femme fatale version of Kellyanne Conway. The laughs have been loud, but have they made a difference?
With the Trump presidency still in its infancy, it will be months and maybe years before professional filmmakers take their shot at deconstructing the madness that is 2017. While not a direct commentary on recent political events, David Michôd’s new combat comedy, War Machine, a spry and subtly brutal adaptation of Michael Hastings’s book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, will nevertheless be one of the first cinematic barometers measuring whether satirical content can strike a chord with modern audiences numb to the 24/7 inanity. Published in 2012, the source novel details the wild clandestine indiscretions of General Stanley McChrystal and his aides during a pivotal period of time in Afghanistan leading up to the troop surge of 2010.
Early reactions to War Machine, now streaming on Netflix after a limited theatrical release, have been middling and dismissive at best. Many reviewers like the estimable Richard Brody of The New Yorker have called the film to task for its “flatness” as political commentary and lack of engagement. Such an argument seems to stem from an overall dissatisfaction with Michôd’s decision to create an absurd and dour modern world that exists in between tones. It’s not quite a comedy, nor is it really a drama. This is a strange detour for the director of Animal Kingdom and Rover, both stylized sweaty Australian nightmares about family units being torn apart by guilt and rage.
Nevertheless, War Machine has fizzled badly with most audiences, and understanding why is essential to unlocking its virtues. A more complex rationale for the critical failure is Michôd’s incredibly earnest approach to what, on paper, looks like salacious material tailor-made for classic satire. Going against the grain of your normal “men behaving badly” romp, the film contains little aesthetic flash aside from the standard slow-motion shot and rock-music cues. Blatant sex scenes and gratuitous violence are absent. This is not The Wolf of Wall Street. Hell, it’s not even The Truman Show.
Instead, Michôd casually and seamlessly skewers the institutionalized procedures that breed irrational mythmaking. He deftly explores how cycles of human delusion help fuel failing foreign policies and rampant governmental hubris. Bureaucrats and politicians shield themselves from taking responsibility for civilian casualties. The military hierarchy helps insulate its top officers from the concerns of those resistant soldiers questioning their mission. Hastings stand-in Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) provides a running commentary on this dual motif through voice-over. His deadpan observations provide a strange mix of cynicism and regret that suggests a paralyzing ideological détente.
War Machine begins with a shot from outer space looking down at the United States in darkness, a place where the lights may be on but nobody’s home. “Ah, America. You beacon of composure and proportionate response.” Sean’s sarcastic cold open introduces the Central Asia quagmire in hopeless terms as the camera continues toward the sunlit side of the planet, seemingly beckoned by the gravitational pull of battle-fatigued Afghanistan. Things aren’t going well for NATO Coalition forces, which means a change in leadership is needed at the top.
The first time we see “new guy” General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) he’s finishing up a bowel movement at the airport (possibly the most courageous act in the film). Seconds later he’s barreling down the terminal corridor like an Abrams Tank, shoulders and legs in perfect lockstep. Michôd delves into a lengthy montage that details Glen’s contradictory educational pedigree (“He was both straight-A student and troublemaker”) and vast military experience in Iraq where, according to one British officer, he “kicked Al Qaeda in the sack.” Pitt grimaces, ponders, and sneers, like some cartoonish version of General Douglas MacArthur by way of the Coen brothers.
Glen’s impeccable résumé has attracted a cadre of loyal aides over the years whose own skills and qualifications are constantly in question. General Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall) may be listed as the Director of Intelligence, but he’s basically an angry hype-man. Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes) is an overweight Navy SEAL who understands little about diplomacy. Admiral Simon Ball (Daniel Betts), the group’s public affairs officer, fails to clearly translate his boss’s thoughts on special operations procedures to the Washington press corps (sound familiar?). Civilian PR man Matt Little (Topher Grace) would rather be chasing women in DC but has been paid an impressive sum to sell the war. Collectively, they are witting accomplices to Glen’s growling ego, a beast that survives on heavy doses of false humility and brute professionalism…
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4