David Michôd’s War Machine marks Netflix’s second assessment of America’s Middle Eastern strategies in barely a month. Fernando Coimbra’s Sand Castle questioned Iraq-war involvement, and now – weeks later – attention is diverted to Afghanistan, 2009. It’s all based on Michael Hastings’ non-fiction “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” an exposé that “questions” General Stanley McChrystal’s 2010 shot-calling. The names may have changed from page to screen, but the message is retained. When invading a foreign land, how is one supposed to broker peace? It’s a confused tactic; one that blurs the rules of war. Good thing a colorful cast of jarheads are there to “make sense” of it all.
Brad Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon, the 4-star legend whose duty is to declare a victorious end to Afghanistan’s ongoing retaliations. Shouldn’t be too hard since the “Glenimal” (yes, real nickname) is best described as “the guy you bring in to win the war.” His mission is clear – wander Afghanistan and determine how best to end US occupancy with a big “W.” McMahon and his band of merry men (John Magaro, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, etc.) get right to work, but problems require pondering. Insurgents are almost impossible to detect versus civilians, President Obama announces an 18-month expiration date, soldiers are becoming lost in new rules of engagement – it’s “clusterfuckingly stupid” to quote Hall’s Greg Pulver. And that’s before Rolling Stone writer Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) tags along, who’s given unprecedented access to their “European drinking tour.”
War Machine is about old-school war dogs battling new-school odds. Soldiers are no longer color-coded. McMahon can’t just charge the battlefield and wipe out opposing numbers. In Afghanistan – and like in so many other Middle Eastern territories – America came in guns-blazing and without permission. “We’ll liberate your freedom!” How could locals possibly take issue?! Simple – because when we leave, there’s no safety. “Traitors” are marked, security details vacate posts and infidels regain control. How do you change a nation without any motivation? This is the losing battle Michôd aims to target, in hopes that future “meaningless” conflicts can be averted.
Pitt’s performance is that of a grizzled veteran who doesn’t care for “popularity contests” and spineless bureaucrats. An authoritative underbite accentuates the furrowed brow of a man constantly in thought. McMahon’s 4 hours of sleep a night and 7 mile jog each morning comes from a regiment of structure. Time wasted is inefficiency. He’s the Patton-esque, grunt-spewing general who only sees his wife (Meg Tilly) 30 days a year (for the last 8 years). War does strange things to men, but McMahon’s one of those prime examples of true called-to-duty addiction. And you know what? Pitt’s matured physicality makes for a blunt yet charismatic warrior chieftain. Beloved by many, hated by pencil-pushers. As it should be.
It’s McMahon’s entourage who sell more cinematic moments, though. Pitt’s face is always scrunched, focused on completion. It’s Hall who projects curse-latent outbursts when plans go awry (Obama effectively denouncing Afghanistan efforts). Anthony Hayes who chugs beers and threatens journalists. Grace brings his public relations panache to an otherwise tasteless war (only there for the money). McMahon surrounds himself with teamsters who help him adapt (RJ Cyler as a tech wiz, Emory Cohen as his personal assistant), which is the very issue with putting such men in charge. Combat has evolved, but certain mindsets have not.
While David Michôd’s screenplay isn’t offering any new “anti-war propaganda” or notions of rethinking, War Machine asserts itself with provocative exposition at the right times. Take Lakeith Stanfield’s performance as Cpl. Billy Cole, a trained Marine now being asked NOT to fire upon the enemy (courageous restraint). The U.S. drags their recruits through boot camp Hell, only to re-teach battle etiquette while bullets are flying. We are, essentially, creating our own enemies – and when one man can’t achieve “success,” you call the following name on your list. The next General Glen McMahon from a long line of West Point graduates. Funny how Michôd’s military dramedy is more about press tours, TV interviews and power plays. That’s what makes this Netflix new release redeeming in its political poignancy – but having Brad Pitt doesn’t hurt.
War Machine is all about the waste of war, and while it's not taking a hard stance either way, Pitt's entourage makes for a watchable modern look into conflict.