Movie Review – War Machine (2017)

War!  Bureaucracy!  Red tape!

BQB here with a review of Netflix’s new film, War Machine.

Based on the book, “The Operators” by Michael Hastings, this film is a dark comedy, satirizing the sheer absurdity modern warfare, not to mention the unenviable positions of those whose efforts to win are backseat driven every step of the way.

Brad Pitt plays General Glenn McMahon, a fictionalized version of General Stanley McChrystal, whose own efforts to cut through a sea of red tape eventually culminated in a Rolling Stone article that proved to be his undoing.

In 2009, McMahon is put in charge of Afghanistan.  The dirty secret no one speaks about or is even willing to admit is that he is expected to maintain the status quo and lose gracefully.  In fact, at the start of the film, McMahon is brought into a room of DC bigwigs who urge him to do a tour of the country and provide them with an assessment of what is needed but then within the same breath, they tell him he’d better not find that he needs more troops.

In other words, the days when great warriors like Eisenhower and Patton could write a check that DC would cash are over.  The warriors aren’t really in charge now.  The whole operation is second and third guessed by bureaucratic bean counting civilians who’ve never seen a battlefield in their entire lives.

With an almost Colombo-esque style of disarming charm, McMahon attempts to cut through the red tape that is slowing him and his team down.  Along the way, he steps on many a toe, but comes across as so humble and down to earth that the bigwigs whose toes were stepped on aren’t sure it was unintentional.  McMahon tapping aimlessly on his keyboard, feigning incompetence with technology in order to avoid listening to a DC bureaucrat’s orders via Skype come to mind.

This is a big role for Brad Pitt.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man, an actor that has spent his life maintaining a top of the line physical appearance, playing parts that make the ladies swoon, gets a douse of McMahon style humility himself.

This is the first time I’ve seen him play someone with gray hair, someone who is admittedly older and too busy to hide the fact with an army of stylists.  Pitt plays McMahon as a gruff and grizzled old soldier, a man with a hand that has been mangled, who walks as though his body is in pain from years of being pushed to the limit.

Even more surprisingly, Pitt’s character has an age appropriate wife, Jeannie (Meg Tilly). Seeing Pitt snuggle up to a gray haired woman who is light years from looking like Angelina Jolie is nothing I thought I’d ever see on film.  Yet, in doing so, Pitt pulls off some of the best acting of his career, namely, convincing us that he could love a woman his age.

This is also a big film for Netflix.  The Internet streaming service spent $60 million on this film and it shows.  The result is a movie that could have been screened in movie theaters across the country had they chosen to go that route.  Brad Pitt is, by my best estimate, the biggest star Netflix has ever recruited for one of its original productions, thus proving that this company is in the movie game to win it, and the future of film is streaming.

For me, that’s a dubious prospect as I love the experience of going to see a film in a theater, though lately I wonder if saving cinema is not a cause as lost as Afghanistan.

Overall, the film asks a lot of questions and paints modern warfare in a not so rose colored light.  Bottomline – these days it sucks to be a man in uniform.  You’re expected to win, but you’re also told by bureaucrats to lose, except they don’t use the “l” word.  They won’t come right out and tell you they want you to lose, just that you should not ask for all the things you need to win.  You should essentially rubber stamp their losing plans and act like you can’t tell their plans are going to lose.

Meanwhile on the battlefield, soldiers are torn between their inner need to, you know, shoot at people who are shooting at them in order to live another day.  Yet, DC has made it clear that screw-ups (i.e. accidentally shooting a civilian) will not be tolerated and punished severely.

Ultimately, the film lampoons the idea of counter-insurgency, or the idea that men from a foreign land with guns can somehow talk the locals into siding with them against the bad man with guns that are already there.  In one heartbreaking scene, McMahon addresses residents of a territory that US forces have taken control of that he’s there to help build roads, build jobs, to protect them and so on.  A villager informs the General that all sounds great, but he has no doubt the US will eventually cut and run and when they do, the bad guys will destroy all the infrastructure that was built and punish the villagers for cooperating with the US troops.

Between desk jockeys trying to manage something they can’t comprehend, the media turning real stories of war into trashy tabloid TV and a clash of cultures (is it really wise for America to assume that they can turn third world wastelands into smaller versions of America?), the film leaves the viewer with the sad feeling that modern wars may, in fact, may never be winnable again.

STATUS:  Shelf-worthy.  Stream it on Netflix.

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