Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Movie Review: War Machine

War Machine ** / *****
Directed by: David Michôd.
Written by: David Michôd based on the book by Richael Hastings.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Gen. Glen McMahon), Anthony Hayes (Pete Duckman), John Magaro (Cory Staggart), Anthony Michael Hall (Greg Pulver), Emory Cohen (Willy Dunne), Topher Grace (Matt Little), Daniel Betts (Simon Ball), Aymen Hamdouchi (Badi Basim), RJ Cyler (Andy Moon), Alan Ruck (Pat McKinnon), Nicholas Jones (Dick Waddle), Will Poulter (Ricky Ortega), Lakeith Stanfield (Cpl. Billy Cole), Ben Kingsley (President Karzai), Meg Tilly (Jeannie McMahon), Griffin Dunne (Ray Canucci), Josh Stewart (Captain Dick North), Tilda Swinton (German Politician).
There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks about Netflix – and its effect on movies – and whether them making their own movies, and mainly bypassing theatrical distribution to straight out to Netflix subscribers to watch from the comfort on their own couches, is a good thing or a bad thing. We can argue about a lot of bad things Netflix does – and I wouldn’t disagree (the worse thing is that Netflix has yet to find a way to make the movies they make or acquire seem like they must be watched, as they have done with their TV shows – and some very good movies are falling through the cracks that way). But in general, if Netflix wants to give a lot of money to good filmmakers to make a film no one else is willing to pay for, go for it. And David Michod is a filmmaker I quite like – his feature debut, Animal Kingdom, made my year-end top 10 list a few years ago, and I liked his follow-up The Rover more than many, and even more in retrospect. So giving him a lot of money to make a film with Brad Pitt felt like a good idea to me – and probably to Netflix as well, and it’s a bet I’d probably make again – even if the result this time around is the limp war satire War Machine – a film that never really finds its footing.
The year is 2009, and Obama has just become President. One of the things he has done is put General Glen McMahon (Pitt) in charge of the War in Afghanistan. It’s not a post that McMahon will have for very long – and this movie documents exactly why that is. McMahon’s strategy is woefully wrongheaded, he is given no support, and he basically lets a journalist see everything he does, who will of course report it, and make him look bad, leading for him to get replaced by someone else – who will, of course, do the exact same thing.
At the center of nearly every scene in the film is Pitt – and if nothing else, you have to say he delivers a daring performance. Note how I didn’t see it’s a good performance, because I’m not sure that it is, but he makes a choice, and sticks with it, knowing full well some will hate it, so let’s give him that. He plays McMahon as a kind of real life version of George C. Scott’s General Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove – but somehow wants to make McMahon both broader, and more human. It doesn’t really work, because how the hell can it. He spends the movie speaking in a strange clipped voice, constantly squinting, and running in the most bizarre way imaginable. Had Michod committed to making this an out-and-out comedy or satire, the performance may really have worked. But he doesn’t do that.
War Machine can never quite figure out what it wants to be. It is, in essence, about the conflict between the Obama administration, who wanted to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, and the soldiers on the ground, who are still being asked to fight, and in some cases die, for a war they know the administration no longer supports. Strangely, the film itself almost remains apolitical about the whole thing – so hard line right wingers can watch the film and see it as a failure of a cowardly Obama, and hard line left wingers can see McMahon and company as gung ho war mongers. That’s not really because the movie plays things fair, as much as it seems like the film has no opinion on anything, ever.
Still, there are scenes that work. There is another fine supporting performance from Lakeith Stanfield (so memorable in Short Term 12 and Get Out, among many others) as a young soldier who quite rightly no longer knows what the hell he’s supposed to do, and doesn’t shy away from making that known. The third act works better than the rest, because that’s when there are actual stakes at play, not a bunch of meaningless chatter like the rest of the film.
But overall, War Machine just never hangs together. There’s a moment here and there that work, but overall the film is a mess. It was clearly made by talented people, all of whom made certain choices throughout – it’s almost as if they never discussed those choices with each other though, and the result is a film that just doesn’t work.

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