Published on May 30th, 2017 | by Craig Silliphant0
Brad Pitt’s War Machine on Netflix hasn’t been getting great reviews. While it isn’t perfect, it was actually much better than many reviews let on.
The reviews of Brad Pitt’s new Netflix vehicle, War Machine, have been middling to poor, with a clearly polarized 53% on Rotten Tomatoes (a polarized review on RT means it hovers around 50%, but digging down on the reviews shows that half the reviewers like it and half of them dislike it, so it’s not a true 53%. For a true 50%, the majority of the reviewers would have to rate it as such). I am landing firmly on the side of the movie. It has some flaws, which we’ll get into, but overall I enjoyed it quite a bit. When it’s firing all its rockets — it’s a brilliant satire of war, politics, and hubris.
Written and directed by David Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover, Hesher), War Machine tells the sort of true story of General Glen McMahon, who is tapped to take over the failing war in Afghanistan. You don’t become a four star general in the US military without being a force of nature and McMahon is a confident, laser-focused, born leader. If anyone can fix Afghanistan and win the war, it’s McMahon.
However, as McMahon soon finds out, fighting a war against insurgents is almost impossible. The more of them you kill, the more of them you create. The only way to win is to show the people that you’re there to help them, yet, you can’t win the trust of a country by invading it. He also runs into all manner of political folly, as he tries to manage upwards in the chain, getting into pissing matches with President Obama and his advisors. As a side note, War Machine is based on a Rolling Stone article turned book (The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan) about General Stanley A. McChrystal’s time in Afghanistan.
Your enjoyment, and I suspect some of the reviews, hinge on whether or not you’re buying into Pitt’s performance. He strikes a bizarre mix of horrible overacting and nailing an intensely quirky character. I decided to go with it, to embrace it as comedic mugging. Though I could understand someone swinging the other way on it.
He’s also surrounded by a great cast: Ben Kingley, Tilda Swinton, Meg Tilly, Alan Ruck, Will Poulfer (from Son of Rambow), Topher Grace, and Anthony Michael Hall, who we get to see hamming it up as a rage-filled right hand man to McMahon. It’s not the same as his 80s geek character, but it was fun to see him doing some measure of comedy. The rest of the lackeys on McMahon’s team are also funny, and there’s a great little subplot about his awkward, but loving relationship with his wife of 30 years.
One of the other complaints from detractors is that the film meanders, but I didn’t feel that at all. It has a solid arc. Act I: McMahon gets to Afghanistan, takes over, and discovers how backwards everything is. Act II: He tries to manage the war, tries to get more troops from Obama, and then from the rest of Europe. Act III: He returns to Afghanistan and without giving anything away, the rest plays out. We also see some of the front line fighting through a unit that McMahon meets, so there is some tense action injected at the right time, near the climax, with characters that have been established (so they’re not just shoehorned in for the sake of having a battle).
I’m not suggesting War Machine was perfect. In fact, the issue that stood out to me was that it was a bit obvious in its politics and a bit on the nose with its clunky narration voiceover. There are scenes where it smartly shows instead of telling, but then the narrator steps all over that by hammering the point home in an unnecessary, sloppy fashion. And it’s a little high pitched in its politics — don’t preach — just tell the story and trust that the audience will get the message you’re sending.
Aside from those issues, War Machine is a smart and touching political satire that hits the right targets. It’s hilarious and absurd, with some hilarious lines (McMahon to one of his shirtless men: “Why are you fat?” or “Turn off Fox News. We don’t need angry perverts yelling at us all day.”). It harnesses the comedy and pathos of administrative political intrigue. It also takes the time to look at the relationships the men have with each other and the general.
And mostly, even though you like and sympathize with these characters, War Machine is a study in hubris — McMahon and his men think they have the most important jobs in the world. That nothing can touch them. They assume too much about their place in the food chain. If you take away the war setting, you have a story about a man who bit off more than he could chew. This is a movie for anyone who ever wandered into a situation confidently and quickly realized they were drowning in circumstance, something we can all identify with.