War is hell, as Gen. Sherman put it in an 1879 speech. But for the soldiers in Netflix’s War Machine, war is more like purgatory: an endless Kafkaesque slog through bureaucracy, punctuated infrequently by moments of actual fighting, with no end in sight.
Brad Pitt stars as the fictional Gen. Glen McMahon, an Army Ranger obviously based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who in 2010 was relieved of his duties commanding American forces in Afghanistan after the publication of a Rolling Stone article by journalist Michael Hastings, chronicling how McChrystal and his men were touring Europe and criticizing then president Barack Obama. (The film is based on Hastings’s book-length expansion of that article, The Operators, with Hastings played onscreen by a silent Scoot McNairy.)
McMahon is some mixture of gruff, brash, and idealistic, put in command of the Afghanistan operation just as President Barack Obama is preparing to reduce troop presence in the country. McMahon — with dreams of grandeur and “finishing” the war — decides he actually needs 40,000 more troops so he can go after Taliban strongholds and eradicate the counterinsurgency.
Soon, though, McMahon finds himself in a comedy of errors and misfires, shuttled around in what Afghan President Karzai (Ben Kingsley) refers to as the “theater of it all.” The unending, confusing war is as much a matter of battle as of public relations, and while McMahon is supposed to be in charge of the operation, it’s really the folks back in DC (and McMahon’s civilian PR guy, played by Topher Grace) who are running the show.
Both McMahon’s staff and troops (played by a stellar supporting cast, especially Lakeith Stanfield as a corporal who has had just about enough of this bullshit) struggle to understand their boss’s mission. But the bigger problem is that McMahon — and, by extension, his commanding officers — feel caught between wanting to win an unwinnable war and following the orders of the commander in chief who inherited that war, and it seems their frustrations aren’t being heard. So when they head to Europe to ask allies for ground support, and a Rolling Stone reporter shows up, the men are ready to vent.
War Machine was billed as a farce that combines war and politics, but it falls flat
All this could make for a stellar farce on the order of Dr. Strangelove, Charlie Wilson’s War, or In the Loop. But alas: War Machine isn’t as good a screenplay as any of those films. Its use of voiceover — which does become merited midway through the film, as the speaker is revealed — is distracting at first, and the film doesn’t seem quite willing to commit to satire or farce; the Passion of Gen. McMahon keeps getting in the way.
Pitt tries to rectify this by pulling out all the stops, dropping his voice a few registers to imitate a man whose vocal cords have taken a beating yelling in the desert. But it feels like Pitt is in a different movie than everyone else — probably because he’s giving a character actor’s performance in the lead role, where everyone else (save Kingsley, who is cartoonish) seems to be playing their parts with a straight face. Pitt has long shown that he’s really a gifted character actor who’s cursed (if you can call it that) with a leading man’s face, but the effect here is baffling and disjointed.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about War Machine is that it’s being distributed by Netflix, with appearances in only a few movie theaters. Netflix has been steadily picking up steam with its original films — the source of some controversy at the Cannes Film Festival, which concludes the weekend of War Machine’s release — and the film is part of a slate that boasts some big upcoming releases, including Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (scheduled for 2019).
And though Netflix is notoriously tight-lipped with its viewership statistics, this might prove to be just the right strategy for something like War Machine. It’s not a great film, but it’s interesting one, and while the combination of Pitt’s face and a trailer that promises farce may not have been enough to get people into theaters on Memorial Day Weekend (which is loaded with tentpole blockbusters), it might be just right for those who want to save the ticket money, stay home, and watch something on the couch.
But while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have gone on so long that they’re ripe for farcical skewering in the way the Cold War has been, War Machine isn’t that film. We’ll have to just keep waiting.
War Machine opens in limited theaters and begins streaming on Netflix on May 26.