The satire is the most fragile of all the genres. Drama fails or succeeds on the strength of very definite qualities like story, character, and pathos. Comedy has leeway with its execution on account of its casual tone, as even the blackest comedies have a jokey kernel. Strict genre fare or action is even more forgiving: as long as the film hits a few key points, we enjoy the parts that hit, and dismiss the parts that miss (i.e., the recent Mad Max, which is awesome yet fairly bereft of story). But with satire, if certain elements are missing – a unifying vision, a stylistic conceit, or even a single performance – then the product just feels off. So is the case with War Machine, the Netflix film from Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B Entertainment. Though the satirical aspirations of this send-up of the War on Terror are apparent and welcome, there are simply too many missteps.
Written and Directed by David Michôd and based off the nonfiction book The Operators by Michael Hastings, War Machine tells the story of the firing of Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), a thinly-veiled fictional stand-in for United States Army General Stanley McChrystal. The General has been charged with bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end. Unfortunately, McMahon is a fairly blunt tool, and Afghanistan looks an awful lot like a nail to him.
McMahon is supported by a star-studded cast of character actors. Ben Kingsley plays the Afghani president, Alan Ruck plays a foil for McMahon, and Anthony Michael Hall plays a general. Topher Grace, Anthony Hayes, RJ Cyler, and Emory Cohen play members of McMahon’s staff. Lakeith Stanfield plays a shell-shocked combatant who is paradoxically both hero and criminal. Even Tilda Swinton shows up for a scene as a German politician. For all the faults of War Machine, the talent is not one of them.
The primary problem with War Machine is inconsistency. For every spellbinding scene in the film, and there are at least three, there is a corresponding sequence that falls flat on its face. This also describes the performance from Pitt. In one scene, he commands attention and emotes wonderfully. In others, his choice to lean on a heavy accent that can’t quite be placed distracts from whatever else was happening. Recall Inglourious Basterds, where he adopted a peculiar accent. Even in small doses, that character strained believability – and that was in a pulpy, violent, alternate-history Nazi-killing film. In War Machine, the performance is more bombastic, and thus more distracting. It’s kind of baffling; it’s possible one could improve the film simply by replacing Pitt’s dialogue with something less exaggerated. But then we’d also have the faces to deal with . . .
I understand that exaggeration is important for farce and satire, but that exaggeration is best spent on actions, behaviors, characteristics – not on mere accents. It also isn’t quite clear what this particular exaggeration is meant to convey. That McMahon is a no-nonsense army guy? Trust me, we understand that.
I could potentially live with Pitt’s performance in an otherwise well-executed film, but War Machine employs that laziest of writing techniques: third-person omniscient narration, from a character we don’t meet until halfway through the film. In the first 15 minutes, I didn’t even know who was giving the ham-handed descriptions of events, characters, and settings, so I assumed it was just some “storyteller”. Regardless of the identity of the narrator, he embodies the very worst aspects of narrators. His characterization is blunt, a textbook example of why you shouldn’t “tell”, you should “show”. Then, when the filmmakers do show, the narrator is quick to fly in to explain everything for the dumb audience: the General begins to realize that his tactics will not work for this battle, one beat, “What the General was beginning to realize was that maybe his tactics wouldn’t work for this kind of battle.” I wish I was joking.
It’s a shame, because War Machine has a lot going for it. I noticed multiple references to Stanley Kubrick films, mostly Full Metal Jacket, but some Dr. Strangelove as well. It definitely knows it wants to be anti-war, satirical, and make a point. And, sometimes it is close. There are powerful sequences in this film, and not just battle scenes. But, every time you think the movie has found its legs and is going to start sprinting, it trips over these hackneyed stylistic choices and sets itself back to square one.
Given all that, I’m still comfortable recommending War Machine. I appreciated a great deal of the comedy, loved a few select scenes, and relished some expert performances. Satire is hard. War Machine doesn’t successfully manage to thoroughly lampoon The War on Terror as Dr. Strangelove did for The Cold War. Still, a few moments of insight make the effort worthwhile.