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WAR MACHINE (2017) review

June 4, 2017

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written by: David Michôd, based on the book by Michael Hastings
produced by: Ian Bryce, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Brad Pitt
directed by: David Michôd
rated: TV-MA (for language and violence)
runtime: 122 min.
U.S. release date: May 26, 2017 (exclusively on Netflix)

 

“You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it.”

 

Few films have dared to tackle the American war in Afghanistan, likely due to its impossibly complex and labyrinthine nature. It’s one of those conflicts that has no defining moment, no real direction, and seemed to just go on forever. Enter Australian director David Michôd and actor/producer Brad Pitt, who have an angle on the war and have helped to tell the overarching problem with it by focusing in on one man.

Pitt plays General Glen “The Glenimal” McMahon, a fictionalized version of former Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. McMahon is a no-nonsense man tasked by the newly elected President Obama to take over operations in Afghanistan—after years of successful work leading operations in Iraq—in hopes that he can redirect focus and achieve something resembling a victory for the U.S.

 

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McMahon immediately finds himself fenced in by bureaucracy, and the film reserves its sharpest digs for the men in the film who’ve never worn a uniform, yet ultimately hold sway over any decisions he makes. His team is a motley crew of hardened veterans like Greg Pulver (a brilliant Anthony Michael Hall) and Pete Duckman (Anthony Davis) and eager but naive men like Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen) and Cory Staggart (John Magaro). Also in the mix is Matt Little (Topher Grace), a civilian media adviser using out of the box pr techniques like inviting a reporter from Rolling Stone (Scoot McNairy) to profile the general and his men.

McMahon finds himself pitted against everyone with whom he comes into contact, be it Afghan President Karzai (Ben Kingsley) or government stooge Pat McKinnon (Alan Ruck). Nevertheless, McMahon’s edge seems to be his undying belief in his men in uniform and his own ability to—to paraphrase his own words—know when to follow the rules and when to break them. It’s his eagerness to break the rules, however, that ultimately leads to his own undoing.

One of the film’s strongest virtues is its ability to present both the macro and micro views of several issues throughout the film, leaving viewers with a deeper appreciation for the quagmire in which our country and our military found itself. Watching people maneuver themselves into positions in which they think they can either influence McMahon or use his influence for their ends is one of the great joys of watching the film. All of its humor is sharply focused and keeps the film feeling mostly light for its first two acts. The third act, however, finds humor is no longer a useful weapon.

 

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A true satire for our times, “War Machine” wisely doesn’t sustain the comedy for the entire two hour running time because, after a while, there’s nothing funny about these situations. I’m honestly a bit amazed it was as funny as it was for as long as it was, especially considering that Michôd’s other two films, “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover,” are almost entirely devoid of humor. A lot of the comedy comes directly from Pitt himself, playing McMahon as a descendant of his “Inglourious Basterds” character Aldo Raine. That Pitt manages to avoid caricature is a credit to his ability to take a broadly drawn character right up to that line, but never cross it. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to say it ranks among his best performances.

The rest of the cast is top notch as well, wisely never playing the comedy for laughs. It was also truly wonderful to see Meg Tilly cast as McMahon’s wife, not just because of the age appropriate nature of her casting, but because she’s a terrific actress who deserves to once again reside in the spotlight. Michôd’s screenplay is witty without being snappy, and also manages to make very complex issues very easy to understand. Most of the film’s humor comes from the absurdity of the various situations, but those absurd situations are also mined for real pathos in the film’s third act.

“War Machine” is one of the finest films about the modern military to come our way. It’s smart and trusts that the audience is smart enough to keep up. However, its true genius lies in giving the culprits for the various misdeeds in the film plenty of rope with which to hang themselves. The problems the film shines a light on are institutional, and likely won’t be solved in any of our lifetimes. “War Machine” lets us know that it’s okay to laugh at the absurdity of those notions, but that sooner or later, reality will set in and we’ll be left more depressed than anything else. If the film has any rallying cry at all, it’s one stated so brilliantly by The Who more than fifty years ago… Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

 

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