While they have been making original films and television shows for some time now, Netflix seems to have decided that with budgets of up to $100 million dollars and stars like Will Smith and Brad Pitt that 2017 is the year they are officially throwing down the gauntlet in Hollywood’s direction and declaring themselves a real player in the business of blockbuster movies. War Machine, starring the aforementioned Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, is arguably the highest profile film to come from the DVD rental and video streaming service to date due to the star power on display. Brad Pitt is most certainly the most recognizable name and only A-lister among the cast, but you will also see Meg Tilly, Griffin Dunne, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Alan Ruck gracing War Machine with their presence in more than just cameos throughout the film’s story.
It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes, for War Machine to remind me of two other films: The Big Short and Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb due to the tone it uses to handle the very important issue of the War in Afghanistan. Its similarity to The Big Short is no coincidence as these two films have the same producers and its similarities to Dr. Strangelove, unfortunately, do not continue throughout the entire film and disappointingly really only rear their heads when Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley (he’s in the movie, too, as Afghani President Karzai) are on screen together.
When I say it reminds me of them, though, it is only because of tone and what it is attempting to do, not due to quality. I felt The Big Short was a flawed and overrated film largely due to its tonal inconsistencies and the way it tackled big ideas without making sure we understood the foundation of those ideas first. It was like it tried to teach calculus without first giving us basic addition. I applaud it for what it accomplished and even more for what it was attempting to do, but I just felt it was a little off the mark in succeeding in its mission. War Machine doesn’t have the second problem The Big Short did, but the tonal inconsistencies which reared their head due to tackling deadly serious subject matter with humor are even more exaggerated here. War Machine has no idea if it wants to be a satire or honest look at The War on Terror and that unfortunately makes for a film which can easily lose your attention.
The film starts with voice over for almost the entirety of its first eight and a half minutes, and it will continue to return to this voice over again and again throughout its running time. We learn the reason for this is that we are hearing the voice of a Rolling Stone reporter quoting the text of an article he has written about General Glen McMahon and the information being given in the voice is pretty dense, but no matter how good and relevant the reason, a voice over is a crutch which makes for an experience far more dull than if we could learn the same information by watching the characters act and react to the situation around them. We are also given some scenes with greatly exaggerated acting, situations, and dialogue early on in the film before ultimately settling on a more standard narrative which certainly contains humor, but if not for the opening would most likely not be labelled a comedy. Finally, add the fact that the first battle scene doesn’t take place until an hour and a half into the film, and the average movie goer is going to have to battle a bit to keep their attention glued to War Machine since there are usually plenty of distractions going on at home where the movie is most likely to be seen.
Which is sort of a tragedy, because while the movie isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to be and relies too much on talk over action, the rest of this script is incredibly insightful, important, and fascinating. I have never seen a film so well describe the difficulties and absurdities of fighting a war against an enemy which doesn’t have a standard military nor even a country or distinct ideology as this one does. The civilian governments have their goals, the military has theirs, and the Aghan citizenry has theirs, and none are spared from either mockery nor sympathy. When all is said and done, War Machine does an amazing job at showing the nuance and complication of what’s going on in Afghanistan and why even those most intimately involved with it are confused. How can you fight a standard war when killing your enemy just makes more enemies? How can you convince people to trust you when you have to do it at gunpoint? How do you even know who the enemy is when people in the same household can be working for and against you at the same time?
One of my favorite scenes in the film shows a low ranking soldier addressing the general during a speech he is giving the troops. The soldier asks McMahon if it’s true that they are giving out a medal for restraint. The general confirms this and explains that since the enemy don’t wear uniforms, can be anywhere, and don’t stand out among the general citizenry that its important not to use violence until its proven to be warranted. The soldier then declares, “So, we are getting awards for not being marines? I’m confused.”
This difference in viewpoint between the military and civilians shows up all over the film, and is quite interesting in the relationship between McMahon and his wife (Meg Tilly). When we first see them, they are also seeing each other for the first time in a very long time. Their encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, they are acting like they think a married couple should act but seem to have forgotten how or even whether the other person truly is their spouse. While this relationship does change throughout the course of the film and they do become comfortable with each other again over time, this opening scene between the two just adds emphasis to what we have been seeing the whole film whenever McMahon and his men interact with government attaches, reporters, and the like which is that military men and civilians have very different mindsets and don’t seem to be able to fathom what the other side’s motivations are.
War Machine also remains very up to date and topical with the way it handles the topics of the media and military relationship to the President of the United States. Obama is constantly mentioned throughout the film as a seemingly uncaring shadowy figure who would rather not get his hands dirty with Afghanistan and leaves that up to his generals while the media and leaks to said media make for some of the more entertaining bits in the movie, but also in the end make up the bulk of the film’s message. And, before I move on to my final verdict, I have to mention that if you don’t understand the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan after the scene in which McMahon is speaking to an Afghan father and his young son in their home after a skirmish took place there, then I would suggest psychiatric diagnosis to make sure you are not a complete sociopath.
Final verdict: War Machine is a slow paced, tonally inconsistent story, but it’s one that you should make an effort to watch – and it will take a bit of an effort for most – due to its much stronger than usual understanding of all the major parties involved in our military actions in Afghanistan. It’s all talk, very little action, but that talk is some fantastic, important talk. After all is said and done, you will never be able to look at that Rolling Stone magazine cover with Lady Gaga wearing nothing but assault rifles as a bra as anything other than the perfect metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan again.