Directed By: David Michod
Written By: David Michod (based on the book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings
Starring: Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, Tilda Swinton, Ben Kingsley
“Ah America, you beacon of composure and proportionate response” relay the opening lines of David Michod’s Netflix Original War Machine; “you bringer of calm and goodness to the world.” The words are narrated to us by a Rolling Stone reporter named Sean Cullen; he continues—“what do you do when the war you’re fighting just can’t be won in any meaningful sense? Well, obviously, you sack the guy who’s not winning it and you bring in some other guy.” Enter Brad Pitt as motivated but oblivious General Glenn McMahon. Exit all cause for viewer investment in the story.
Michod’s opening dialogue is an encapsulation of his film at large—a succinct, biting and brutally sardonic indictment of American hubris that establishes itself with clarity, but which, in the process, leaves its audience with little space to journey into, announcing its agenda and morality so vehemently as it does.
What hinders War Machine is not the validity of its contention nor the efficiency of its execution, but the sense of complete moral enclosure which hovers over it. Australian born writer/director Michod, drawing inspiration from Michael Hasting’s non-fiction book The Operators, over-articulates his stance on the perceived nonsensicalness and arrogance which mars U.S military presence in Afghanistan to the point that any onscreen demonstration of said nonsensicalness and arrogance is in the end redundant. What role do we have as viewers if not to come to our own conclusions? If not to feel our own way through a film’s morality? A film can lead us in a certain direction, and indeed often should, but for the thesis to resonate its realisation should be on the viewer. Michod takes this power away from his audience, opting instead for a tone that is undoubtedly breezy and energetic, but ultimately didactic.
Brad Pitt chews the scenery like a baseballer would tobacco, doing his best to channel George C. Scott’s General Patton in the leading role—a hard-nosed, gravel voiced hawk with an infinite well of drive and a penchant for inelegant monologues designed to inspire. Pitt makes slight, but crucial, adjustments however: Glenn McMahon is at once more caricatured and more mellow than his World War 2 counterpart. Pitt’s magnetism and charisma are unassailable, the challenge for the performer, rather, is the transparency of his affectations.
Glenn McMahon certainly has the makings of a familiarly all too showy performance—blatant lifting of a superior performance, comical posture which suggests a broom has been lodged you-know-where (particularly when McMahon runs), facial expressions which are forever contorted in one way or another. The arc of Glenn McMahon, however, emerges as War Machine’s most arresting element. Showiness aside, there are finer contours to Pitt’s performance, a melancholia and tragedy which plagues McMahon as he refuses to confront the demise of his significant other: war itself. It’s a sadness which signals a further affinity between McMahon and Patton, two ageing men forced to wrestle with their decline. Where General George Patton was flawed but sympathetic however, Glenn McMahon is the butt of a deliberately distressing joke.
It is via the decline of McMahon that Michod most effectively captures the misguidedness of America’s Afghan strategy; a man so oblivious to the futility and contradictory nature of his assignment that he is at once pitiful and painful. What assignment exactly? To placate Afghanistan’s counter-insurgency and ease the conflict home to a peaceful and healthy conclusion by instilling in the Afghan people the Western way of life.
The sadness of the McMahon character is in the sincerity with which he meets his mission. Perhaps it’s remiss to suggest that McMahon, like Patton, loves war; that is to say, warfare. Rather, McMahon loves the military and the opportunity for leadership it affords him. He is resolute to a fault in tackling the task his government places before him. He believes wholeheartedly his military is the answer to Afghanistan’s problems, that he and his men can invade, attack when necessary, and eventually bring peace to the country.
If Michod hadn’t signposted McMahon as a doomed cog in the wheel from the very beginning, we might have believed for a moment that the General was capable of such an ill-conceived task. He certainly has a grasp on the principle that violence begets violence; as McMahon outlines, killing two insurgents out of ten doesn’t reduce the number of insurgents to eight, but rather it inspires further revolt and increases the total to twenty. What McMahon champions as the bedrocks of his Afghani rehabilitation, rather, are education and community. Futility and nonsensicalness arise when one considers these bedrocks require the constant overlook of the U.S’ militant eyes in order to take root, or, as Cullen puts it, they require Afghanistan be built at gun point which, for reasons self-evident, is a condemned strategy. I suppose McMahon’s delusions of moral grandeur are an attempt at dramatic irony from Michod, but dramatic irony works best when we can make our own inferences. Instead we are told what to think and what will inevitably happen so endlessly that McMahon’s oblivious shtick grows tired quickly. The height of Michod’s overstated screenplay sees Tilda Swintom make a cameo as a German journalist who sole task is to deliver a lengthy monologue in which McMahon’s flaws are basically laid out for us in bullet-point form.
Just how toxic McMahon’s assignment is Michod captures via tonal shifts that are unexpected, but nicely fluent. There are moments when War Machine departs from its satirical core and veers into high stakes, cat-and-mouse combat that wouldn’t be out of place in The Hurt Locker or American Sniper; frightened soldiers firing blindly from rooftops, fear manifesting itself in rash decision making. It’s the sort of gruelling, unflinching filmmaking that established Michod as one to watch with his Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom. The director’s fleeting depictions of combat are low on blood, but bring an authenticity and truthfulness to the story, the director at times eschewing comedy for terror in order to crystalize the perturbing notion that hubris breeds very real danger.
After these moments of calamity, McMahon questions the civilians caught in the cross-fire, assuring them that the violence which has just transpired was a necessary evil in their liberation. Meanwhile, those affected plead for McMahon to take his army and leave before they can cause further damage. To see McMahon’s expression shift as he reluctantly weighs the intent of his action with its consequence, is when Michod’s indictments carry the most sting. It’s in these moments when McMahon, an agent of American hubris, must reluctantly confront the consequences of his military’s actions, and then, if only in small part, bear them before they’re dismissed. If only we the viewer were more closely aligned with McMahon and made the realisation alongside him. Instead, we’re over-informed, and all we can do in the meantime is wait for the characters to catch-up.