The meandering military story fails to win hearts or minds.
There’s nothing more potentially subversive in War Machine than Brad Pitt’s white-haired four-star general reading a plain white hardback with the generic title “Excellence.” And then it’s not. The film takes this beautiful, character-defining, headstrong mediocrity and saves it until the end. This simple structural miscalculation contributes yet another SNAFU for us to slog through during the film’s two-hour quagmire. The film seems to believe, through Pitt’s performance and its editing cadence, that it is a black comedy, but it doesn’t function that way. The tale of botched bureaucracy is so boringly nondescript and aesthetically interchangeable for most of its runtime that it could be telling the story of a president, congressperson, general, CEO, or mob boss and you’d only have to tweak the costumes.
The general Pitt plays is General Glen McMahon, based on the real General Stanley McChrystal whose story was told in the film’s non-fiction source material The Operators. The book is an exposé, wet and wild with drunken discussions of the mismanaged war in Afghanistan. The film seems to want to fictionalize this story for the purposes of satire, but never adds enough to differentiate it from a straight-shooting film that simply never commits to its drama. This is almost entirely due to choices made by writer/director David Michôd.
His adaptation adds heavy voiceover that would if you didn’t already know the film was based on a journalism book, make your bet your every penny that it was. It’s the kind of narration that is so hard to pull off, the kind some films do and in so doing inspire hundreds of overwritten pretenders that bore their audiences with what becomes a graphically-aided audiobook. War Machine starts with a cheeky voiceover describing McMahon with all the flowery imagery of a novel (or journalistic profile) that is perfect for when a viewer can’t see or meet the person it’s painting.
The problem with this in a movie is that unless you’re aware of this saturation of detail and undercut it (think jokes where a character does something counter to their description in a voiceover), your audience wonders why their eyes bother to do any work at all. If the movie’s just going to read a script to you the whole time, might as well listen to it on the bus with a few interwoven Blue Apron commercials. War Machine gives us smarmy narration over Brad Pitt’s practice, constipated grimace. That and his gravel-chomping voice affectation wear thin immediately, an annoyingly stony military statue come to life like it was cursed by some sort of Night at the Museum hex.
Pitt’s McMahon comes accompanied by a slew of slightly-sketched dummies in his personal staff, including military officers played by Anthony Hayes, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, and Anthony Michael Hall. Each get a brief introduction like they’re joining the Ocean’s squad, but Magaro and Hall are the only two allowed enough cinematic space to make an impression. Those they’re able to convey come as merely simplistic rather than completely forgettable. Topher Grace brings a scene-stealing amount of energy to his small role as McMahon’s civilian press adviser, but there’re so many people to film and so little for all of them to do that even his swagger is swallowed up. And I’m not just talking about the sloppy blocking.
This is to say, the plot of the film is slight and slow. McMahon is the new head honcho of forces in Afghanistan and the government is telling him to clean up their mess. How? Nobody knows for sure. All McMahon is sure of is that he’s the one to win this war. Behind Pitt’s squashed, tight storkish frown is nothing but grit, a well-pressed uniform stuffed with sand. No charisma, no charming doltishness, no tragic ambition. Just a man out of touch with everything but the ghost of Patton. His quest to win the war takes him on a series of vignettes that sometimes seem like skits, sometimes dramatic short films, but all lack the punchline or weight that their form might suggest.
McMahon visits President Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley, playing an oddly self-aware-yet-still-offensive stereotype), a Rolling Stone journalist (Scoot McNairy, likable and life-giving, though he also functions as the film’s overbearing narrator), and a group of soldiers stationed out in the hinterlands of the Afghan territory. These soldiers provide the only glimpse throughout the film that Michôd is capable of making exciting, tense movies.
A soldier played by Will Poulter leads a Marine Corps infantry squad that contains another on the brink of desertion played by LaKeith Stanfield. These two have such screen presence and such intense emotions in a movie that struggles to keep itself awake that it’s very hard not to wish the film was about them. Their youth (24 and 25) really comes across underneath their gear, both internalizing the trauma of infantry deployment in their two brief scenes. But just like that, they’re gone and we’re back to the frumpy pseudo-Veep bumbling of team McMahon. Even a brief cameo by Tilda Swinton as an on-the-nose German journalist can’t jolt any energy into this film’s meandering.
War Machine is a movie that feels outdated or in the wrong medium entirely. Maybe it’d be better as a TV show – the film is almost structured that way already – but almost every young adult novel gets a more competent adaptation than this. The film never engages with any of its philosophical conflicts (ambition and pride vs. philanthropic idealism, the human cost of relationships and mental health vs. duty) because it keeps dragging its feet to the next scene on the itinerary like a zombie that feeds on narrative stagnation. The best parts are those that are outside of the film’s central joke; the soldiers away from McMahon’s doomed leadership have the vitality and character needed to keep my attention. While the rest of the film tells me what to feel, they make me feel. And I feel like I’d have rather watched their movie.