IN NETFLIX’S War Machine, Brad Pitt plays the charismatic general Glen McMahon, newly appointed the command of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Beloved by his men, baffling to most everyone else, McMahon sets about ramping up the war effort when all anyone really expects of him is a quick, painless exit strategy.
Based on the true-life events recounted in the book, The Operators, by Michael Hastings, about the rise and fall of General Stanley McChrystal, War Machine also stars Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Ben Kinsgley (brilliant as Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai) and a blink and you’ll miss her appearance from Tilda Swinton.
Director David Michod has previously tackled familial crime in the critically acclaimed, Animal Kingdom (2010), and dystopian drama with 2014’s The Rover – two powerfully dark films showcasing a young director with incredible talent and promise.
Those who’ve followed Michod’s career, then, have been eagerly awaiting this adaptation, through the controversy of Netflix’s distribution acquisition and the somewhat off-putting first glimpse of Pitt’s offbeat performance in the first trailers.
War Machine sets itself up as an oddball satire grounded in reality. As that first taste indicated, Pitt plays it anything but straight.
In many ways, McMahon echoes his brilliant performance as Lieutenant Aldo Raine in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds, full of good-natured stoicism, a man-out-of-time innocence paired with an insatiable hunger for war.
It works, for perhaps the film’s first act, when War Machine begins to tackle heavier subject matter – the moral fog of war – Pitt’s comedic handling jars horribly.
It’s that very imbalance that ultimately drags War Machine down. Despite a strong start, this is a very confused film, kicking things off with winks and nods to Strangelove before going down a winding, tiresome road.
A subplot involving a worn-out marine squad led by Will Poulter shoulders the film’s dramatic burden and feels like it belongs in an entirely different film.
There are great war movies that meander between satire and severity with definite success; War Machine isn’t one of them.
That’s not to say War Machine is without its charms. There are some quality comic performances here – the aforementioned Kingsley, as well as Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon’s right-hand man, firing off hilarious, gung-ho verbal assaults in support of his commander whenever the chance arises.
There’s a certain degree of affection in War Machine not often seen in this kind of film – still, despite being occasionally thoughtful, War Machine fails to truly affect.
In attempting to communicate the stagnation of modern warfare, “the slow shuffle toward freedom,” War Machine spends much of its two-hour run time vacillating between command centres, military dinners and press conferences; consequently it feels more like a sequence of occasionally funny, occasionally disturbing scenes with little or no unifying coherence.
There’s certainly an interesting, uniquely American story here, buried beneath a few two many layers of awkward moral brooding and misplaced comedy.
While War Machine doesn’t know quite exactly what it is, it’s not a total waste of time – just an unfortunate misuse of talent.