Michael Hastings’s 2010 Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General,” a chronicle of now-retired General Stanley McChrystal’s brief tenure as the commander of operations in Afghanistan, remains a wild read today. A powerful piece of journalism that cost McChrystal his job, the story offered a look inside the behavior of the military elite and was stunning simply because of the level of access Hastings had into their hard-partying lifestyle. Hastings, who died in 2013, turned his article into a book, The Operators, which examined McChrystal’s rock-star reputation and how it disintegrated as he tried to win a supposedly unwinnable war.
This may all sound like fertile territory for a satire—an acidic, no-holds-barred account of America’s troubled endeavors in the Middle East—but the director David Michôd’s War Machine isn’t quite sure how cynical it wants to be. A somewhat fictionalized account of Hastings’s book (the main characters’ names are changed, though the film keeps the characters of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama), the movie is going for a boots-on-the-ground look at the mistakes and horrors of the Afghanistan War. Except, that is, when it’s trying to be a rollicking comedy anchored by a broad Brad Pitt performance as Glen McMahon, a McChrystal stand-in.
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).
War Machine kicks into a higher gear when following the travails of a depleted, exhausted company of soldiers in the bloody Helmand province, which McMahon seeks to regain control of. Lakeith Stanfield and Will Poulter are standout performers in these segments, including a harrowing sequence where they accidentally shell a civilian household. But such scenes feel worlds away from the comic hijinks of McMahon needling the White House for troops and going on a raucous diplomatic tour of European bases.
That tour is what eventually does McMahon in, as it did McChrystal—it’s where his men, drinking and carousing in front of Sean (furiously scribbling notes), loudly criticize the Obama administration and brag of their own military prowess. And it’s a dismal foregone conclusion set up by the film’s opening minutes, one that takes far too long to arrive, with far too little learned in the meantime. War is hell—or is it just bleak comedy? Michôd doesn’t seem to know.