Review: War Machine

War Machine

Trailer

 

wm2

Look at that chiseled jaw.

 

Two weeks on, and we’re back with Netflix’ second Middle-eastern war based offerings. Unlike Sand Castle however, War Machine is very much looking at the big picture, and what could be bigger, when it came to the war in Afghanistan, than the rise and fall of one Stanley McChrystal? The “Runaway General”, whose efforts to prosecute the war ended in such ignominy, would seem to be rich fodder for a biopic, and quite the lead in Brad Pitt. But Sand Castle wasn’t all that it could be, and War Machine has to walk that tight dividing line between being a suitable adaptation of Michael Hastings expose and addressing the really critical issues in Afghanistan. Was it able to do this, or did it err too much to one side or another, neglecting either McChrystal’s demise or the tragedy he was briefly responsible for?

General Glen McMahon (Pitt) is appointed as the head of ISAF, tasked with handling the quagmire that the war in Afghanistan has turned into.  The “Glenimal” quickly turns heads with his requests for additional troop deployments and insistence that the war can still be won, but problems arise also: the ineffective President Karzai (Sir Ben Kingsley), the drunken antics of his personal team of “Operators”, a sceptical government and the attention of a Rolling Stone writer.

War Machine sort of sets itself up in its opening shots, as films tend to do. General McMahon, the titular conflict mechanism, uses the toilet facilities at an airport bathroom on his way to Afghanistan. The proud war hero looks comparatively awkward and humbled carrying out a human function as regular and necessary as breathing, before going right back to looking every inch the commanding leader of men. Almost immediately, director David Michôd sets up the crux of War Machine, which is whether McMahon is as much the hero as he likes to think he is, and as many of the people around him like to think he is.

However, having established that, War Machine then decides to take a lengthy detour into familiar territory, familiar enough to the viewers of Sand Castle: the ins, outs and inherent contradictions of counter-insurgency, only this time it’s spelled out even more obviously than it was in the first film, with a Scott McNary narration telling you exactly why “you can’t build a nation a gun point”. Poor General McMahon and, some, of his underlings, are men of action and bravado, trained for a different war that ended only a short time after it began back in 2001. Nearly a decade later, the same men are being asked to end an insurgency war while winning over the people of Afghanistan, and find that they simply can’t do it.

The glaring inadequacies of the American position is laid out starkly. The politicians don’t trust Karzai, who is probably guilty of election fraud, while McMahon recognises that Afghanistan just needs a leader. The government want the commitment in Afghanistan to start being drawn down, while McMahon is going public about his desire for more troops to be committed to the fight. The government wants McMahon to be the leader of a coalition of willing, friendly allies, but the allies are too busy bickering with each other, and undermining the mission, for McMahon to really care about them at all.

This could rapidly turn into an anti-government, pro-military “grab em by the balls” type exercise, but War Machine does, eventually exercise some restraint, though it slings plenty of barbs at a distant Barack Obama, portrayed as uncaring about the reality of Afghanistan, and more concerned with the optics of meeting his generals. McChrystal’s titanic error in being party to criticism of the administration is not really excused at any point, and the foibles and idiocy of “the operators” is well showcased, most notably in an extended sequence concerning McMahon’s visit to European allies.

 

War Machine

Kingsley makes the most of what amounts to a two scene cameo.

 

The inherent problem of a man like McMahon being but in charge of such an operation, where he would rather be pro-actively doing something rather than just killing time till the deployment is over, really takes over in the latter half of War Machine, which is the best portion of the movie. We see McMahon go from being a man with a boundless sort of enthusiasm for the task at hand – criticising the “burger huts” of his own soldiers and willing to get into the nitty gritty of the fight – to sincerely doubting himself, his intentions, and his capacity to get the job. A scene featuring a German politician – Tilda Swinton in an extended cameo – is probably the films best, as Pitt’s McMahon, nearly wordlessly, sees the metaphorical pro-COIN façade he is trying to build crumble before him.

It is Pitt making the role. The kind of intentionally wooden, understated and underemotional performance being pulled here is quite strange for Pitt, who has graduated into a sort of post-leading man existence in recent times, with probably his most commercially successful years behind him but plenty of opportunity for fine acting still to come. The trick is letting those crucial little glimpses of the real man eke through at the right times, when he loses his cool, when he struggles to relate to the wife he is frequently absent from, when the inevitable end comes. This is certainly one of Pitt’s most unique performances, and it is one of his best too.

All that being said, War Machine fails to really reach out and grab you, and many of its component parts aren’t entirely up to scratch. There are some great scenes here and there: McMahon stumbling over his attempts to explain what the plan is to the rankers of his army; a British general gingerly pointing out that the province they are being asked to kill and die for is worth nothing strategically; President Karzai’s surprising focus on his DVD player; and a wonderful deadpan punchline to McMahon’s anger at not having a single Afghan at the table of a dinner about gathering support for the Afghan war. But there are only fleeting moments, in a production whose focus keeps jumping and that seems edited and paced without enough care.

The supporting cast, including fairly notable names like Topher Grace (remember him?) and Anthony Michael Hall do a very good job at portraying a characterless mob of yes-men, but they lack any real, crucial impact on the story and even their bickering towards the end lacks bite. Meg Tilly as McMahon’s long neglected wife is so-so, a late addition to proceedings that distracts rather than enhances. And Will Poulter (grown up fast since The Revenant) and Lakeith Stanfield (almost unrecognizable from his turn in Get Out) as US jarheads caught in the hurly-burly of McMahon’s surge of troops seem rather trite, an effort to inject some traditional action into a film that doesn’t really need it. The other real stand-out of the cast is easily Kingsley as Karzai, in what amounts to a two-scene extended cameo. Kingsley is great as the unconcerned Afghan President, who is unwilling to really present any kind of regal façade to McMahon or his plans.

The cinematography is tight and unexceptional for the most part, as is Michod’s script, which never really pops the way it should. As an adaptation of Hasting’s account, I suppose its faithful, but that wasn’t really enough here: when the Hastings surrogate narrates the impossibility of COIN and the craziness of “the operators”, it always seems a bit too much like a jaded lecture, as opposed to an authoritative denunciation. It feels like War Machine’s script wants to cross the line and move over into satirical territory, but its general approach just isn’t up to the task.

That’s a disappointing way to finish up my assessment, but the truth, much like the reality of the US’ continuing failure in Afghanistan, hurts. That said, while War Machine is not a great war movie, it does still stick in the mind a little: an expose of a man representing the kind of can-do American bluster of World War Two, trapped fighting an unwinnable war in the 21st century. But there’s only so much more treading over this well-trod-over territory, in this manner at least, that the Middle-Eastern wars can take. Pitt saves War Machine a lot, but the supporting cast is lacking and the pacing problems really drag it down by the end. Best when viewed as a character study of McMahon, War Machine might be worth watching some rainy day, maybe a few decades from now when we have some distance. Partially recommended.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

War Machine

Trailer

Two weeks on, and we’re back with Netflix’ second Middle-eastern war based offerings. Unlike Sand Castle however, War Machine is very much looking at the big picture, and what could be bigger, when it came to the war in Afghanistan, than the rise and fall of one Stanley McChrystal? The “Runaway General”, whose efforts to prosecute the war ended in such ignominy, would seem to be rich fodder for a biopic, and quite the lead in Brad Pitt. But Sand Castle wasn’t all that it could be, and War Machine has to walk that tight dividing line between being a suitable adaptation of Michael Hastings expose and addressing the really critical issues in Afghanistan. Was it able to do this, or did it err too much to one side or another, neglecting either McChrystal’s demise or the tragedy he was briefly responsible for?

General Glen McMahon (Pitt) is appointed as the head of ISAF, tasked with handling the quagmire that the war in Afghanistan has turned into.  The “Glenimal” quickly turns heads with his requests for additional troop deployments and insistence that the war can still be won, but problems arise also: the ineffective President Karzai (Sir Ben Kingsley), the drunken antics of his personal team of “Operators”, a sceptical government and the attention of a Rolling Stone writer.

War Machine sort of sets itself up in its opening shots, as films tend to do. General McMahon, the titular conflict mechanism, uses the toilet facilities at an airport bathroom on his way to Afghanistan. The proud war hero looks comparatively awkward and humbled carrying out a human function as regular and necessary as breathing, before going right back to looking every inch the commanding leader of men. Almost immediately, director David Michôd sets up the crux of War Machine, which is whether McMahon is as much the hero as he likes to think he is, and as many of the people around him like to think he is.

However, having established that, War Machine then decides to take a lengthy detour into familiar territory, familiar enough to the viewers of Sand Castle: the ins, outs and inherent contradictions of counter-insurgency, only this time it’s spelled out even more obviously than it was in the first film, with a Scott McNary narration telling you exactly why “you can’t build a nation a gun point”. Poor General McMahon and, some, of his underlings, are men of action and bravado, trained for a different war that ended only a short time after it began back in 2001. Nearly a decade later, the same men are being asked to end an insurgency war while winning over the people of Afghanistan, and find that they simply can’t do it.

The glaring inadequacies of the American position is laid out starkly. The politicians don’t trust Karzai, who is probably guilty of election fraud, while McMahon recognises that Afghanistan just needs a leader. The government want the commitment in Afghanistan to start being drawn down, while McMahon is going public about his desire for more troops to be committed to the fight. The government wants McMahon to be the leader of a coalition of willing, friendly allies, but the allies are too busy bickering with each other, and undermining the mission, for McMahon to really care about them at all.

This could rapidly turn into an anti-government, pro-military “grab em by the balls” type exercise, but War Machine does, eventually exercise some restraint, though it slings plenty of barbs at a distant Barack Obama, portrayed as uncaring about the reality of Afghanistan, and more concerned with the optics of meeting his generals. McChrystal’s titanic error in being party to criticism of the administration is not really excused at any point, and the foibles and idiocy of “the operators” is well showcased, most notably in an extended sequence concerning McMahon’s visit to European allies.

The inherent problem of a man like McMahon being but in charge of such an operation, where he would rather be pro-actively doing something rather than just killing time till the deployment is over, really takes over in the latter half of War Machine, which is the best portion of the movie. We see McMahon go from being a man with a boundless sort of enthusiasm for the task at hand – criticising the “burger huts” of his own soldiers and willing to get into the nitty gritty of the fight – to sincerely doubting himself, his intentions, and his capacity to get the job. A scene featuring a German politician – Tilda Swinton in an extended cameo – is probably the films best, as Pitt’s McMahon, nearly wordlessly, sees the metaphorical pro-COIN façade he is trying to build crumble before him.

It is Pitt making the role. The kind of intentionally wooden, understated and underemotional performance being pulled here is quite strange for Pitt, who has graduated into a sort of post-leading man existence in recent times, with probably his most commercially successful years behind him but plenty of opportunity for fine acting still to come. The trick is letting those crucial little glimpses of the real man eke through at the right times, when he loses his cool, when he struggles to relate to the wife he is frequently absent from, when the inevitable end comes. This is certainly one of Pitt’s most unique performances, and it is one of his best too.

All that being said, War Machine fails to really reach out and grab you, and many of its component parts aren’t entirely up to scratch. There are some great scenes here and there: McMahon stumbling over his attempts to explain what the plan is to the rankers of his army; a British general gingerly pointing out that the province they are being asked to kill and die for is worth nothing strategically; President Karzai’s surprising focus on his DVD player; and a wonderful deadpan punchline to McMahon’s anger at not having a single Afghan at the table of a dinner about gathering support for the Afghan war. But there are only fleeting moments, in a production whose focus keeps jumping and that seems edited and paced without enough care.

The supporting cast, including fairly notable names like Topher Grace (remember him?) and Anthony Michael Hall do a very good job at portraying a characterless mob of yes-men, but they lack any real, crucial impact on the story and even their bickering towards the end lacks bite. Meg Tilly as McMahon’s long neglected wife is so-so, a late addition to proceedings that distracts rather than enhances. And Will Poulter (grown up fast since The Revenant) and Lakeith Stanfield (almost unrecognizable from his turn in Get Out) as US jarheads caught in the hurly-burly of McMahon’s surge of troops seem rather trite, an effort to inject some traditional action into a film that doesn’t really need it. The other real stand-out of the cast is easily Kingsley as Karzai, in what amounts to a two-scene extended cameo. Kingsley is great as the unconcerned Afghan President, who is unwilling to really present any kind of regal façade to McMahon or his plans.

The cinematography is tight and unexceptional for the most part, as is Michod’s script, which never really pops the way it should. As an adaptation of Hasting’s account, I suppose its faithful, but that wasn’t really enough here: when the Hastings surrogate narrates the impossibility of COIN and the craziness of “the operators”, it always seems a bit too much like a jaded lecture, as opposed to an authoritative denunciation. It feels like War Machine’s script wants to cross the line and move over into satirical territory, but its general approach just isn’t up to the task.

That’s a disappointing way to finish up my assessment, but the truth, much like the reality of the US’ continuing failure in Afghanistan, hurts. That said, while War Machine is not a great war movie, it does still stick in the mind a little: an expose of a man representing the kind of can-do American bluster of World War Two, trapped fighting an unwinnable war in the 21st century. But there’s only so much more treading over this well-trod-over territory, in this manner at least, that the Middle-Eastern wars can take. Pitt saves War Machine a lot, but the supporting cast is lacking and the pacing problems really drag it down by the end. Best when viewed as a character study of McMahon, War Machine might be worth watching some rainy day, maybe a few decades from now when we have some distance. Partially recommended.

 

wm1

Only alright.

 

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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One Response to Review: War Machine

  1. David Navarre says:

    I think Pitt’s acting here is a struggle between Pitt and the director. The excessive cartoonishness that is more visible early in the movie seems to hew closely to Hastings impressions of the General. I think Pitt is struggling to act while the director is insisting that he act like a buffoon. If Pitt had been allowed to play McMahon straight, the writing would have still lead us to the conclusion that McMahon was in way over his head. I understand and feel sorry for the characters, but it seems that the director doesn’t want you to. He wants to mock them, as Hastings did.

    I thought the use of the Marines was very well done. The action demonstrates the frustrations of the boots on the ground and Stanfield’s wordless reaction to the tragedy stands out so much from the rest of the movie as honest and compelling.

    The trailer made me think it would be a disastrously bad movie. Your review got me to watch it. The movie itself made me wish they’d dispensed with the cartoon and just let the characters embarrass themselves with their own words.

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