In a few days the final season of House of Cards will debut on Netflix. That show’s debut in 2013 transformed Netflix from primarily a disc-based rental service, to a streaming based provider of original content on par with premium cable channels like HBO. Netflix is moving even more toward original content, having gone hundreds of millions of dollars into the red, betting that by bagging big names, they can succeed in developing original films to rival the award-winning television series they consistently produce. War Machine, adapted from the best-selling non-fiction book The Operators, starring Brad Pitt, is the first “blockbuster” film of this new initiative. While House of Cards became something of a national phenomenon, War Machine will be forgotten in a few weeks. It’s an inauspicious beginning that primarily fails because the film is stunningly dull.
War Machine is loosely based on the tenure in Afghanistan of General Stanley McChrystal, but the name of the character has been changed to General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt). Likely this is to avoid a massive lawsuit from McChystal whose tenure as commander of US forces in Afghanistan ended in ignominious fashion after he let a Rolling Stone reporter follow him and his staff around Europe while he tried to raise allied support for additional troops for the war. During this tour McChrystal and his staff were quoted criticizing President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and largely came off as inebriated buffoons in the subsequent article. Why any general would let a Rolling Stone reporter follow him around in the middle of an active war is an interesting question, one that-combined with the confusing and confounding nature of the War in Afghanistan in the first place-might be rife for political parody if handled by writers, say, as deft as the Coens. Unfortunately, David Michod’s script is off-putting, dry, and ultimately fails to succeed in entertaining the audience or asking the important questions about the conflict that most Americans aren’t.
The War in Afghanistan is in its 15th year, making it the longest war in United States history. Hollywood has paid little attention to the war (Lone Survivor would be a notable exception). Over the last few years, that lack of attention has seemed to seep into everyday life. Somehow it’s become perfectly normal that we’re still fighting two overseas wars. This isn’t a political blog, so my opinion on the war isn’t germane. War Machine, however, was an opportunity to demonstrate just how complex a war Afghanistan is. While it poses the juxtaposition of the military mindset of “victory” versus the pragmatic reality that there really isn’t a “Mission Accomplished” benchmark that exists in the conflict, it can’t make up its mind if it wants to simply lampoon Pitt’s character or deal with the realities of the war. Structurally, the first 80 minutes of the film seem to lean toward parody, then all of a sudden it drops into the serious consequences of a leadership disconnect by following troops into a disastrous encounter that hammers home the real problem with making this film: there really isn’t anything funny about a war that’s lasted 15 years and taken thousands of lives.
You can find humor in war. It’s been done successfully, but almost always in retrospect. This film takes place in 2009-2010. Barrack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and other members of the Obama administration are all characters in the film. We’re only five months removed from the end of the Obama presidency. The situation in Afghanistan is not much different from it was during the time of the film, and in the midst of that sobering reality, the character of “General Glen McMahon” doesn’t come off as biting satire so much as it does ham-fisted, over-the-top buffoonery. Brad Pitt comes off like George C. Scott’s General Patton, minus the intelligence, plus an obsession for mixing modern management styles with warfare. It’s a baffling acting choice that I had to double-check wasn’t aping a real person, but even though many of the events in the film are factual, this fictional general’s weird voice and cadence and absurd running fetish are just so beneath what Brad Pitt usually delivers, I am just left at a loss to what he was thinking.
The film is narrated by the Rolling Stone reporter (Scoot McNairy). The narration comes off as sarcastic and smarmy, which the leadership certainly deserved, but when it collides with the actual men in service (if there were women members of the armed forces depicted, I missed them) it comes off as incredibly disrespectful to the thankless task they’ve been handed in fighting a war no one knows how to win or extricate themselves from. There are no neat enemy soldiers in opposite uniforms to target. No clearly defined objectives, hills to storm, bases to take. Everyone looks the same. Anyone can be an enemy, anyone can be a friend, and the wrong move on a soldier’s part can turn the latter into the former in a second. When the film gets to McMahon’s military surge into the most unfriendly region in all of Afghanistan, the narrative device just disappears for 40 minutes while we watch the real consequences of poor leadership. It’s almost a relief that its gone, but then it’s also the movie’s framing device, so the structure falls to pieces.
I give Pitt and David Michod credit for at least trying to make a movie about the complexities of the Afghanistan War, but War Machine‘s execution of examining all these things ends up just being boring. The production values and talent are there, but the direction and writing can’t live up. Hopefully future Netflix original films of this stature will take the lesson and improve on an extremely sub par initial effort.