When Netflix was selling War Machine earlier this year I wanted to like it. The campaign, which was substantial by the standards of the marketing efforts the streaming service sometimes puts together for its original film, worked hard to position it as a satire of the idiocy of war. In particular, the war in Afghanistan is one that not only suffers from the same problems every war does but because no one seemed to have a clear idea of what victory looked like. At the end of my review of the campaign, I said it looked kind of like a modern version of Wag the Dog.
The movie stars Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, the latest in a string of generals brought into Afghanistan to salvage the mess that’s been made by the previous leaders. He’s accompanied by his crack team of assistants, aide de camps and specialists, but he’s fighting not just the Taliban but a massive international bureaucracy. With goals that are unclear and ill-defined, he does what generals do: Take big risks and try his best. The realities of the situation all seem aligned against him and indeed against the idea of anything approaching the definition of “victory.”
While sold as a satire, it never really comes close to that mark, at least not consistently. That’s because just like the soldiers don’t know exactly what war they’re fighting, the filmmakers don’t seem to know what exactly it is they’re satirizing. Is it the fog of war that settles in and obscures everyone’s vision of what they’re working to accomplish? Is it the innate hubris of generals, who all believe they have the drive and vision to do what no one else can or would? Is it the politicians who send soldiers of all ranks into war without knowing where the finish line is?
The story never really settles on one message or another but flits between those and more. Pitt’s McMahon is a headstrong man. He’s dedicated to the mission and to the soldiers under his command and certainly has clear ideas about what it is he wants to do. But the script seems too determined to keep things grounded in reality and so never fully pushes anything the extra foot-and-a-half that’s necessary to truly satirize.
All of McMahon’s actions seem reasonable. Or at least believable in context. The same can be said of the supporting characters, whether it’s the group of aides and assistants he brings with him or the politicians and advisors he reports to and collaborates with. Everyone’s actions are too real to be satire but too outlandish to be real. So the movie keeps walking the middle line between wanting the audience to be aghast at the kind of ridiculous actions everyone takes while also laughing at their audaciousness.
Pitt is fine as McMahon. I’ve never been a huge fan of the actor and actually prefer him when he puts on as many affectations as possible in a role. That’s why I like him most in Burn After Reading, the Oceans films and a few others (but NOT Benjamin Button). Bury the Pitt-ness of him under as many layers as possible, I say. So the very mannered and deliberate performance here works for me, though again he’s hampered by a script that can’t fully commit to an idea.
The real treat here is Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon’s long-serving second-in-command Greg Pulver. He’s one of the only elements of the movie that keeps pushing things as far as he can to highlight the insanity of the situation, even while loyally standing by McMahon no matter the circumstances. It’s a surprise to see Hall turn in a performance like this and it should have gotten more recognition when the movie was released. The other is Alan Ruck as Pat McKinnon, one of the civilians McMahon has to coordinate with and clear actions through. He toes right up to the line of satire as he guides McMahon through the political realities he’s in, winking that there’s no clear goal here, he just wants this mess to go away. Ben Kingsley, Topher Grace and others are massively underused in supporting roles.
There’s a good story to be told about the war in Afghanistan and how it’s such a difficult situation for the U.S. We can’t leave because we’re all still culturally traumatized by Vietnam and retreat here would be a tacit admission that the time, money and life expended there would have been largely for naught. We can’t stay because no one wants us there and, as some characters point out, the enemy lives there and so can wait us out. The movie may have been hampered simply by trying to set itself in the real world, where it had to adhere to certain rules. Move it to a fictional country and there would have been more freedom to cut loose a bit, hitting the same notes more clearly and telling a clearer and comically tragic story.
If you’re a Netflix subscriber, check out War Machine for yourself.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.