General Stanley McChrystal said some pretty stupid things. In his 2010 Rolling Stone profile, McChrystal pissed and moaned about a dinner with troops in Paris. “Screwed,” is how he felt. As if that comment weren’t unprofessional enough, McChrystal then proceeded to flip off one of his men. Locker room talk? Maybe. But for a four-star general sought to oversee a convoluted war? He presented himself as amateurish, if not a little childish. And it got worse. McChrystal painted a portrait of the megalomaniacal military that was less Kurtzian and closer to Bluto from Animal House. This guy was a braggart who stated that “we’ve shot an amazing number of people” after accusations of covering up a shooting. A guy surrounded by advisors who called events and foreign correspondence “fucking gay.”
This interview led to McChrystal’s forced resignation just days after, and represented the armed forces’ struggle to shake off the public perception of barracks filled with boys’ club misconduct. But even more curiously, the write-up is funny. People from all over comment on McChrystal. This guy was established, and yet he behaved like he got to the treehouse first, oblivious to the real, social, and professional ramifications of his actions.
Of course he was doomed to become a larger-than-life character in a movie. And War Machine is McChrystal’s story. Based on Michael Hastings’ book The Operators, along with Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile, Brad Pitt is McChrystal. Or rather, a barely veiled caricature of him by the name of General Glen McMahon. This is a tale of military hubris, delivered with deadpan humor, and targeted squarely at McChrystal. The latest film by David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) runs on acid. So, while its campaign of savagery may be old-helmet, War Machine is still swift and assuredly cynical.
McMahon is just the latest leader in a long line of bad decisions in the Middle East. The narrator, journalist Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy, channeling Hastings), begins bluntly: “Oh America. You beacon of composure and proportionate response. You bringer of calm and goodness to the world. What do you do when the war you’re fighting just can’t possibly be won in any meaningful sense? Well, obviously, you sack the guy not winning it and bring in some other guy. In 2009 that war was Afghanistan. And that other guy was Glen.”
The film’s caustic willingness to get mean is what makes War Machine worthwhile. Michôd directs it as the macho theater of the everyday: silhouetted soldiers in doorways, long shots of choppers through saturated filters, guys just hanging out and waiting for nothing to happen. Michôd’s framing is square, clean, rigid, and it supports the irony. The bent is clear from the beginning, and Michôd’s screenplay doesn’t veil its contempt for types like McMahon. The writer-director makes it clear that these are silly men, fighting for preposterous reasons. The broad perception of an occupation’s uselessness in the post-Bush era was strong, but that doesn’t stop a guy like McMahon from seeing the opportunity for aggressive expansion. As McMahon points out, often, he’s on a mission for freedom, security, stability, and jobs.
McMahon is asked to “win” Afghanistan. His orders: steadily decrease the U.S. occupation, without attempting to go out in a blaze of glory. But McMahon, bullish and naïve, sees opportunities. He feels he needs men. He thinks he needs battles. But he’s a modern war-farer, and to achieve all that, the general assembles his own personal A-Team to oversell his goals.
There’s Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall, ruddy-faced and ill-tempered), McMahon’s number two/id. (Fun fact: he’s based on Michael Flynn, so do read his character accordingly.) “Yes we can – not do things,” Pulver laments of Obama, while guzzling beer in front of a reporter. John Magaro is Staggart, a close advisor and handler/bullet-point whisperer. Topher Grace is Little, a press advisor for McMahon who admits that he thinks the war is idiotic, until the money’s too good to pass up. McMahon also has guys with “intelligence” in their titles, and a band of tired grunts. These are McMahon’s lost boys of Afghanistan. “You boys ready? Let’s go win this thing,” McMahon clucks.
McMahon sees Obama declare on TV that no new troops will be sent to Afghanistan. So McMahon publicly requests 40,000 more troops under his command. McMahon’s advised against going on 60 Minutes for an interview for fear of being blindsided, and he goes on anyway, because he really wants to. There, he winds up admitting that he doesn’t communicate with the President. Michôd stages his adventures as an escalating series of coups. McMahon exerts his power with few thoughts deeper than copy-paste jingoism, begging the question of how long he can keep getting away with all of it.
The film’s tone registers somewhere between Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! and Alexander Payne’s droll sensibilities. War Machine is about the banality of virtuous mission-making, and those missions as disguises for selfish ideals. McMahon seems to think he’s doing good work. He maintains his core communications and principles of war’s benevolence. But it’s all a stunt. And his men display what he would never openly admit – war pays, plays, and lets you keep hanging with the boys.
In Pitt’s hands, McMahon is a unique breed of a square-jawed bullshitter. Michôd lets the actor play, and it’s to the film’s benefit as a centerpiece of performative silliness. Pitt cocks an eyebrow, sounds like Aldo Raine after years of a pack a day, and is alarmingly hapless. The characterization teeters on the grotesque or simplistic, but Pitt’s up to living like a cowboy out of time. He’s always had great timing, and a gift for awkward confidence (see: Burn After Reading, Inglourious Basterds). He twiddles his fingers awkwardly when he proselytizes. Jogs with outstretched arms. He barks at a local, Badi (Aymen Hamdouchi), to explain how elections work.
Now, War Machine does sometimes come across as thematically obvious. Curt, even. Michôd rolls out familiar devices like ironic war drums, and a choir under McMahon’s speechifying plays cheaply. Euphemistic humor about war emanating from mens’ loins has been done a hundred ways since Major Kong rode the bomb in Dr. Strangelove. (At one point, the narrator suggests that McMahon’s men just want to “play with their dicks and eat chicken.”) But the humor and the indictment of the warrior mentality win out. Michôd’s better instincts take over, many of the crude jokes land with force, and Pitt is hilarious in this mode. McChystal would probably be mortified by all of this, a thought that War Machine would consider the highest of high honors.