Film review | War Machine: Fighting the Stupid War

War Machine is a worthwhile effort hampered by a lack of formal ambition • 2.5/5

Continuing a great tradition that no doubt had its cultural forebear in Joseph Heller’s modern classic piece of prose Catch-22, the latest flagship Netflix-exclusive feature film is a caustic look at the diplomatic ‘clusterfuck’ that was the tail-end of the Afghan War. Starring Brad Pitt – with a supporting role offered up by Ben Kingsley as former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and even a sly, sharp cameo from Tilda Swinton – War Machine enlists promising Aussie writer-director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) to adapt (and lightly fictionalise) the book The Operators by Micheal Hastings, which recounts the fall from grace of US General Stanley McChrystal, here renamed General Glen McMahon and embodied by Pitt. 

Hastings’s book was spun off from an earlier Rolling Stone article, for which the sly author interpellated himself into the McChrystal’s ranks, and wound up telling an embarrassing yarn of bureaucratic incompetence and gung-ho American triumphalism. 

It may have helped sink McMahon’s career, but it gave us this film – which, at its conclusion, actually laments the lack of public interest in the true, deeper implications of the Afghan War and America’s propensity for knee-jerk invasion masquerading as nation building. 

And this is the thing –  Michôd’s film certainly has its heart in the right place, establishing a drily humorous and knowing tone about the events at hand and never once succumbing to jingoism. If anything, its satire – which recalls this year’s similarly cynical look at the ‘business’ of modern American warfare, War Dogs – risks being too glib in parts, assuming that its audience is always fully on board with its self-satisfied and soundbite-friendly critique of the ins and outs of the Afghan situation. A better stylistic wash may have done away with this problem, but Michôd relies too heavily on voice over narration by our Michael Hastings stand-in – here renamed Sean Cullen and played by the always on-point Scoot McNairy – to the point where its first few minutes feel like an illustrated audio book, with the voiceover introducing our players one by one in what soon becomes a repetitive and somewhat numbing exercise. 

If anything, it points to the ultimate downside of taking a TV drama approach to a feature film – an ‘appropriate’ mistake given the fact that War Machine is produced and distributed by Netflix. Serialised television narrative can afford to spend time just letting the characters talk and talk, because part of the medium’s appeal is getting to know the characters as if they were one’s friends or acquaintances; never mind the fact that all of these conversations can build up to satisfying arcs further down the line as the episode-count ticks away. With a feature, your time is limited – even if, at two hours, Michôd’s film could be said to be outstaying its welcome somewhat – and you need to use your stylistic tools to maximise the experience and make it as powerful as possible. 

The presence of Brad Pitt lends an extra oomph to what is essentially a TV movie, but while his McMahon is occasionally compelling as an almost naively ‘good’ man executing a mission that’s idiotic at best and a moral black void at worst, it is hampered by a pantomime performance from Pitt – he appears to be doing simply a dialled-down version of his Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds (2009) – which in itself embodies the stylistic indecision at the heart of the film itslf.

War Machine is a worthwhile effort hampered by a lack of formal ambition. Certainly funny and illuminating in parts, it could also have used some stylistic flair to bring the otherwise pretty incendiary material to life. Still, it exudes a sharp satirical charm and boasts some fine performances, and makes a fine-enough time as you while away on the couch, contemplating which Netflix tab will serve you next, or better... 

Released on May 26, War Machine is currently streaming on Netflix