War Machine (2017)

Directed by David Michod


War Machine is a little bit of a lot.  It’s a satire, but it treats itself and its characters with surprising weight.  In one moment, Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) can be mocked for his self-seriousness and inflated ego, but in the next we’re with him and his wife in a quiet, intimate scene in which she questions his career and their marriage.  In another scene we follow McMahon and his team of military… let’s say advisors, as they drink and party across Europe in what feels like a few scenes straight out of The Wolf of Wall Street.  The movie alternates between broadly comic and deadly serious.  Hell, for the first 90 or so minutes of the movie, despite having ‘war’ in the title, there is no depiction of actual fighting in the story.  This is about the people who lead us into trouble or and struggle to lead us back out, so it felt like there might never be a depiction of the war onscreen because the point is to show how far away these men in power are from the people who suffer at the hands of that power.

And yet, there we have a few soldiers trudging through the unfamiliar and unfriendly terrain of a small Afghanistan village, fighting the enemy even though they can’t always tell who that is.  There are a lot of heavy and engaging questions posed in this movie, but the story never seems to figure out a way to answer those questions.

To take a step back, this is a story about a real, failing war which we know doesn’t succeed.  So when General McMahon states that his goal is to win the war which we’ve been told is unwinnable, we already know he will fail.  What then, over the course of the next two hours, is meant to surprise or enlighten us?

While the movie is well-made on a scene by scene basis, the whole of the movie is scattered.  There is little to no forward momentum, precisely because we know how all of this will work out.  And for most of the movie, we receive narration from a character who is only introduced halfway into the story.  Even before we learn that he is a Rolling Stone writer sent to cover McMahon, we know he’s a voice of authority.  He introduces us to the war (defining what an insurgency is), and he tells us all we need to know about McMahon’s team.  He might as well be God in the context of this story.

So not only do we have a good sense that McMahon’s mission is impossible, but the narrator tells us flat out that what he wants to do can’t be done.  So it would seem that the point of the movie, given this insight, is to point and laugh at McMahon and the military as a whole.

Brad Pitt helps bring to life an amusing portrait of a powerful but kind of sad man, so deep into himself and his routine that he has no space for cognitive thought.  He’s almost a robot in his single-mindedness which seems to have served him well before but certainly not now.  Pitt’s performance in War Machine is a combination of his characters from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading.  In each case his character is simple-minded, and in the former he is an accomplished leader who still serves as the punchline in a couple scenes (“Bonjourno”).

Pitt’s physical mannerisms (think of him running) and his strongly accented voice and constant glare suggest a characterization of a man than a man himself.  General McMahon is a symbol, not a person.  And yet the movie soon dives into the struggling romance between him and his wife, giving us a scene in which both come from a place of darkness and real pain.  That scene is surprisingly powerful, but it feels like it’s from a completely different movie.

When the movie pivots into the final (and only) battle, the action mostly disregards McMahon in favor of a young platoon of soldiers to whom we were briefly introduced earlier.  The point of this scene, like many in war films, is to show the horrors and the complexities of war.  It’s never as simple as ‘we ride in, we beat the bad guys, we ride out,’ even if that’s what people like McMahon would like to believe.  But the point of this movie seems to be about the improper construction of the military as it currently stands.  The premise of the movie is that the military brings in a new general (McMahon) to operate as a scapegoat, but McMahon and the political powers that be are so far apart in their thinking that they have two completely different goals.  To survive in the military, it seems, you have to think in a fundamentally different manner than you do to survive politically or in any other type of living.

That’s the conflict then, military power versus political power, even though we’d like to think they can work together.

But the final battle, which doesn’t go well, suggests a divide between McMahon and his own soldiers.  The conflict isn’t just between him and the political powers, but it’s between him and his how military and thus himself.  The more I think about it, the more this makes sense to the descent of his character, but it also contradicts the idea of McMahon that was built up throughout the story.

First, we’re led to think that McMahon, despite his foolishness, is a good leader.  He has survived in the military this long, and he must be somewhat capable to get this far.  Even if there is a divide in thinking between him and the politicians, it simply suggests a gap between military institutions and political institutions.  McMahon is a capable military leader.  But the final battle and eventual loss makes McMahon seem incompetent even within military guidelines.  So is McMahon the embodiment of the military structure that got us into such an unfavorable war?  Or is McMahon simply a poor leader by military standards?  Maybe McMahon is never in the wrong, despite the comic quality of his character.  The politicians with whom he interacts are similarly hard to root for.  From McMahon’s perspective (and the narration) we know that they don’t understand the war and what goes into winning a war, but that, again, might only be McMahon’s perspective.  The politicians at least understand what was happening in Afghanistan and accept that the situation won’t get any better.

So I guess the point of this movie is to make it clear that the war in Afghanistan was a mistake, but is that it?  I think most people already feel this way, and this two hour movie then feels like a long, single joke about the way the military works and the people who rise to power within the military.

When I think about the premise of this movie, I think this could be a great fictional story.  Maybe we don’t refer to the war in Afghanistan but imply that this is one in the same.  The idea is that the politicians bring in someone to fail, in this case McMahon.  They have a goal for him, to end the war, but he decides that the war must be won or lost, preferably won.  McMahon is a little quirky and ripe for comedy, so maybe his peculiar methods and leadership techniques actually work at first.  This could only be the case if the story was about a fictional war, but I think that would add some more momentum to the story.  Eventually he might fail and question everything he’s ever known (as he does in this movie), but there would at least be some mystery and stakes to the story.

As it is everything is mostly predictable and occasionally funny.  War Machine covers a lot of ground tonally, but it still feels like a collection of scenes from different movies.  It’s telling that the movie ends with a joke set up from the very first shot.  The opening and closing shots, almost identical, bookend the movie and clearly imply a futility to everything happened in the movie.  Why then was this two hours long?  Some of the best jokes are less than ten seconds, so this one could shave a little off its runtime too.

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