War Machine, which rolls out on Netflix (and in a limited theatrical release) on Friday, is caught between two poles, looking to humanize and contextualize McMahon’s rise and fall while clearly rooting for him to fail from the outset. The result is a bizarre genre—the war dramedy, one could call it—that crosses the profane, internecine, Veep-like office politics of the military’s top brass with more brutal, soldier’s-eye-view battle footage. War Machine is a failure, but could perhaps have been a great film if it had tried a little harder to pick a tone.
The movie begins with voice-over narration from Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), the roving journalist who stands in for Hastings. Sean explains the regimented outlook of General McMahon, appointed in 2009 to win the war in Afghanistan. He’s beloved by the men who have served directly under him, and accompanied by a tight inner circle of soldiers who attend to his every whim. Though a charismatic leader who believes in the importance of outreach to local Afghan leaders and soldiers, McMahon seems able only to speak in homilies and circular dialogue.
His plan—to win the hearts and minds of Afghan citizens through sustained promotion of democratic values—is at odds with the chaos that surrounds his troops, an occupying force that is increasingly despised by Afghans sick of war. At least, that’s what Sean tells us in voice-over. War Machine’s script, also written by Michôd, is strangely didactic, especially considering Sean doesn’t enter the action until the last act of the movie, and his presence is pretty minimal even at that point.
Sean serves as a vague voice of conscience, critiquing McMahon’s plan of victory before the movie even begins. Sean’s blanket dismissal makes the rest of the film (which runs for a dreary two hours) feel pointless, since the entire plot revolves around McMahon’s doomed attempts to win. His plan, such as it is, largely consists of meeting with various people: then-Afghan leader Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), who’s uninterested in leaving the state palace; local leaders who tell him the war cannot be won; and Secretary of State Clinton, who warns him against asking for more troops.
Unbowed, McMahon does exactly that, and tries to maneuver his way into securing a huge commitment of resources. The way Pitt plays him, constantly squinting into the middle distance and holding his hands in a claw-like fashion, McMahon might as well be a character out of Catch-22, a foolish warrior-turned-bureaucrat with delusions of victory in the face of an obvious quagmire. But Michôd is a much more restrained director (his previous works include several documentaries and the grim Australian crime epics Animal Kingdom and The Rover). The filmmaker seems uncomfortable with Pitt’s antics, and the goofy ensemble of consultants around him (including a hopped-up Topher Grace and a particularly aggressive Anthony Michael Hall).