Overview: War Machine examines the rise and fall of military commander General Glen McMahon and his struggles in Afghanistan. Netflix; 2017; Rated R; 121 minutes.
War Stories: It seems that we will never have a dearth of war stories on film, and our times are no different. Just this year, Netflix has released two such movies, both set in Afghanistan. War Machine certainly has the star power of a major release, featuring names like Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley. Also buoying expectations is the previous work of director David Michod, namely The Rover and Animal Kingdom. Taking on a dark comedy about the U.S. military is certainly no small feat, and though unexpected for this director, it does hold the hope of something different when it comes to war films.
No Nazi Scalps To Be Found: And it is different. And tonally confused. The film’s opening lines of dialogue set us up for dark comedy that never truly delivers. Continuing this trend, Brad Pitt’s vocal performance, seemingly held over from his time in Inglourious Basterds, feels wildly out of place and almost demands laughter from scenes that are more likely to be met with bemused shrugs. It is unfortunate that such a talented actor and director combo seem to eschew character work in favor of barely explained physicality and vocal phenomena. This performance, and the script that surrounds it slows this story to a crawl in the first hour, all while telling a story that most of us know. Apparently, “changing hearts and minds” is not as easy as it seems. This brings to mind that telling military stories, with the abundance of news sources available to us now, is much more difficult than with the release of older films, like Platoon and The Deer Hunter. This makes the decision to detail the trials and tribulations of modern warfare odd, to say the least.
The decision from Michod, who also wrote the script based on a novel by Michael Hastings, to employ the age-old technique of voiceover narration slows down the film from the opening. Strangely, our narrator does not appear until the halfway point of the film, and actually, that is when War Machine becomes enjoyable. The Rolling Stone journalist Sean Cullen, portrayed by criminally underused character actor Scoot McNairy, succeeds in driving the film towards some actual conflict for General McMahon. McNairy’s soft presence helps us believe that these military men would trust him, and despite the machinations of the plot, he remains a likable presence from the moment he finally enters the picture to the closing credits.
Not Trained For This: The central conflict, that of men of action struggling in the changing landscape of war, does hit home. There is not much subtlety to be seen here, as the constant narration tells us of these difficulties, but it is still mostly effective. Lakeith Stanfield, playing Corporal Billy Cole, is a standout here in a limited role that deals with this theme deftly. Cole, speaking out of turn to McMahon, details the difficulty of being a member of the Marine Corps during a time when marines are rewarded for actions that they are not trained for, such as holding back from attacking presumed insurgents until weapons are drawn. Stanfield’s performance combines boiling rage, frustration, and most of all, confusion. For the first time, this moment gives us a chance to care about the men and women affected by the decisions of the commanding officers. Pitt, for his part, takes a backseat in this moment, and it is to the benefit of the scene.
War Machine truly reeks of missed opportunities. If they had reached for true satire, and risked going too far, there would be a possibility for something truly memorable. After all, if we look back at dark comedies, and satire in particular, there is always the risk of offense. This type of material can be many things, but the one descriptor is should never be is “safe.” War Machine is a film that seems like it is in on the joke. It is two steps removed from Brad Pitt staring at the camera and giving us a wink. Although there are several moments of amusement, from Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of a King who has seen the American plan fail more than once to Topher Grace’s devious turn as McMahon’s press advisor, there is not enough for this to be a satire worthy of memory. Even these moments are not lasting and are in the service of one-dimensional characters. A film like this only truly works if it is carried by the star. For once, Brad Pitt is not up to that challenge.
Overall: War Machine takes on difficult material and is never quite able to win over its audience. Despite some impressive moments from supporting roles to recover from a mediocre Brad Pitt performance, it never hits the correct balance of dark humor and military drama.
Featured Image: Netflix