Glenn McMahon (Brad Pitt) is a celebrated, if not eccentric, United States Marine General tasked with leading NATO forces in 2009 Afghanistan. In 10 minutes, David Michod’s War Machine introduces McMahon’s team, none of which appear as appealing as Pitt’s left-eye bulging, tight-lipped officer of the people.
McMahon is tasked with handling relations with Afghanistan while the war winds down under the Barack Obama administration. It is a “nation-building exercise,” one which McMahon takes on with gusto.
Pitt’s character is, in delivery, an aged version of Lt. Aldo Raine. A gruff southern accent and a high degree of eyebrow expressivity control them both. Except, here, Pitt’s McMahon is a man seemingly reserved, tightened up by his look of concern and squinting eyes. But this look is a farcical front, a save-face for a complete mishandling of the job at hand.
War Machine bills itself as a biting political satire. The complicated nature of McMahon’s situation—McMahon is an explicit stand-in for Gen. Stanley McChrystal—is meant to highlight the bitter comedy of errors that can come from the United States’ callous politicization of the Middle East, within or without of wartime.
Instead, the film is a strange imbalance of tone from the moment where Ben Kingsley’s President Karzai explains his confusion over HDMI inputs, bemoaning the days gone by when red-yellow-and-white AV cords hooked up a video player to a television set.
The comedy is misplaced. The drama is undermined by said comedy. The satire is less scathing than the film presents it to be.
Compare the scene with Kingsley with one in which a disillusioned soldier, played by Lakeith Stanfield, expresses deep-seated concerns over the nature of Marines in combat. In one, we have a hack comedy bit in the middle of a political film. In the other, Stanfield’s soldier is brought near tears by legitimate concerns that McMahon shoves off with a single throwaway line.
There are a number of compelling sequences in this film. These are the sequences that cut through the comical-BS. An interruption from a German politician (Tilda Swinton) during a presentation of McMahon’s, as well as its fallout, comes off more impactful than McMahon manipulating his political overheads with a 60 Minutes interview (played for laughs) or the evasion of these overheads afterwards by faking a faulty Skype connection.
The more serious second half of the film does much more productive work than the half-and-half tone of the beginning. The only real war sequence in the movie, depicting inept soldiers struggling to understand the battlefield, is the film’s most powerful. Perhaps telling that it does not need the rest of the film’s narrative, the satire revolving around Pitt’s McMahon, to prove its point.
The cast of War Machine is strong. Pitt, for one, takes on a strange display of purposefully concealed emotions incredibly well. Stanfield’s emotional defiance, albeit in a small performance, is indicative of his ever-consistent young talent.
Then there is Anthony Michael Hall’s unnecessary-but-meaning-well aggression as McMahon’s number two. And Topher Grace’s smarmy journalist (who somehow also means well…?). Smaller roles from Will Poulter and Aymen Hamdouchi, as well as Swinton’s cameo, add casting depth. Even Scoot McNairy’s cool narration provides something to the ambience.
But these performances are contained within a film that doesn’t know itself well enough to be presentable. As the satire that it claims to be, the film is superficial. As a dramedy about America in wartime, it is inconsistent. As a straight drama about the plight of the soldier, it can only be seen in bright, effective glimpses.
As a film, then, War Machine is, merely, troubled.
War Machine: C
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)