War Machine is a Netflix original film that premiered recently. It is written and directed by David Michôd (writer and director of The Rover and Animal Kingdom). It stars Brad Pitt who also was a producer on the film, and is based on the book “The Operators” by Michael Hastings, a Rolling Stone journalist who died in 2013 in an automobile accident that some believe involved foul play and a government cover-up.
The film follows General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) and his team as he takes on the task of trying to end the war in Afghanistan in 2009. It shows the political nature of war, the futility of fighting an insurgency, and the comradery formed in war by soldiers. And by shows, I mean it explains everything flat out in the narration. What it shows is such a mix of genre and tone that leaves you feeling like too many hands got a chance at making this film.
I’ve seen and enjoyed the writer/director’s previous film The Rover. In fact, I liked it quite a lot. It was a very tense and suspenseful character study that made you want to continue watching as the film went on. It was the complete opposite of War Machine.
War Machine begins with literally 20 minutes of narration over two to three-minute scenes of Brad Pitt in failed Saturday Night Live sketches. We learn everything we need to know about his character and everyone else’s from narration. In fact, it’s not just the characters we learn about through narration it’s the entire plot. It’s like being read the script instead of watching a movie made from it.
Pitt’s performance is a mix of his past roles in 12 Monkey’s and Inglorious Basterds. He keeps the mannerisms from his role as a person with a mental health condition from 12 Monkey’s and his attitude and over the top military gruff nature from his role in Inglorious Basterds, but it feels more like we’re seeing an imitation than a new character.
It feels like Pitt had a bit too much control when it came to developing his character, and it leads to a performance that is supposed to feel comedic and bullheaded but feels desperately unfunny and sympathetic.
The biggest problem I have with the film is that it tries to be one thing (or four things), but the result is something completely different than what was intended. The result is borderline unwatchable. You end up with an overwhelming sense of pointlessness after watching this movie and not that the war is pointless but that the last two hours of your life were.
The film wants to make grandiose and impactful statements about war, specifically one against an insurgency while you are watching a bad comedy film. It intends to be a character study of General McMahon but any information you get about the character is told you by a narrator, not shown on screen through action. And the action that does take place on screen is a contradiction to what the narrator is telling you to feel.
The narrator tells us that the General is incapable of doing the job he’s been assigned because this war is impossible to win, but then we see that in most of his efforts to do anything to affect the war effort he is shut down politically. The narrator tells us he is stubborn and has a high sense of self-belief, but we see him continually try to do his job to no avail. The movie wants us to judge this man, but all it does is show me scenes that make me pity him.
We find out half way through who has been narrating the film so far. Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter, sent to write an article on the General. So, up until now the movie has been making statements about war and this man and his men in a very objective manner. Then we find out that our voice of authority is, in fact, this reporter. An extremely subjective voice has been explaining the film to you this entire time. It’s terrible storytelling, suddenly the film itself is its unreliable narrator.
The budget of this movie was reported to be $60,000,000, and you can tell. The locations are very nice and new with the sheen of Netflix money. But when every piece of equipment you see on screen in 2009 Afghanistan is pristine and new, you notice. Particularly in the one combat scene in the entire movie where all of the expensive vehicles you have seen throughout the film disappear and about sixteen marines wander through a fake neighborhood meant for paintball. There’s zero tension anywhere but the director is going for it, and I don’t understand how he failed.
As I said early, his previous film The Rover was incredibly tense. Oh, I guess Brad Pitt showing up at the end of the scene to turn a tense and emotional combat scene into another SNL sketch didn’t help the tension either.
Even the sound mixing is wrong. You’ll be halfway through a conversation scene and suddenly, out of nowhere, all dialogue drowns away. Probably to give you the impression that the character no longer cares or is listening but the acting never represents this. So every scene you go into, you’re wondering if it’s important or if halfway through the sound will disappear and turns out that no, you don’t need to be paying attention at all.
The music was compossed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, yes that Nick Cave, no not that Warren Ellis. They have collaborated before but most notably, at least to me, on The Road, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Proposition. All of which had fantastic scores. War Machine’s, however, is utterly forgettable. It’s like they didn’t know what kind of movie they were watching either so they went with an average patriotic score that is very forgettable.
There are a few cameos in the film, two of which are Ben Kingsley and Tilda Swinton. Kingsley is playing a slightly toned done Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3, and it feels really out of place, but so does everything else in this movie. Tilda Swinton plays a German reporter and is on screen for maybe a total of 2 minutes, and she plays her part so well and sincerely that it also feels out of place.
If you want a comedy war movie that is well made and includes an overacted, but not in a bad way, Brad Pitt than watching Inglorious Basterds is a much better use of your time. If you want a modern war film that shows the comradery of soldiers in the field, the ineptitude of command, and political interference during a war than watch the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. Or do a deep dive into the conspiracy theories surrounding Michael Hastings death, they are more interesting and coherent than this film is.