With his right eye in a near-perpetual scowl and a gruff voice, Brad Pitt stomps through War Machine as a general used to carrying high stakes on his shoulders.
Unfortunately, he can’t carry this movie, which suffers from slow pacing, an uneven tone, and too much narration as it dramatizes part of the War in Afghanistan and the firing of the armed-forces commander there. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.
Pitt plays US Army Gen. Glen McMahon, a decorated military man loosely based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed not only the American forces in Afghanistan from June 2009 to July 2010 but the International Security Assistance Force as well. President Barack Obama asked for McChrystal’s resignation after a Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” where freelance journalist Michael Hastings depicted McChrystal’s staff mocking civilian government officials, including Obama and Biden, and described how they didn’t have the support of their coalition partners.
Based on Hastings’s subsequent book, The Operators, War Machine had the potential to satirize not only the current conflict but the zaniness of certain aspects of war, a la Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a book that became a 1970 film directed by Mike Nichols. But writer-director David Michôd (the crime thriller Animal Kingdom and dystopian drama The Rover), doesn’t seem to know when to let the material speak for itself.
Scoot McNairy’s Sean Cullen, a journalist based on Hastings, narrates large chunks of the film before appearing one hour into its 122-minute running time. The narration editorializes or explains points that Pitt and the supporting cast capably make. For instance, McMahon’s wife, Jeannie (Meg Tilly, great to see again on the big screen), shows that the military is this man’s life better than any narration when she notes they’ve spent less than 30 days together over eight years.
All that talk also diffuses a lot of the humor, which the trailer for War Machine pumps up in spades. Pitt is in fine form playing McMahon as awkward anywhere but in the thick of battle. He’s as confident as Lt. Aldo Raine, his fixer from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds, but more arrogant than charming, plus grayer and thicker around the middle. Note how he clutches his hands in front of him and bows his head for his first meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), thinking the other man is on his knees in prayer until Karzai turns around and asks for help in hooking up a Blu-ray player.
McMahon is the new boss who turns out to be the same as the old boss, although he doesn’t recognize that at first. After impressing the top brass during his command in Iraq, he’s assigned to make progress in Afghanistan, which US forces invaded in 2001 to dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban. (NATO forces joined the fighting in 2003.) He and his support staff, including Topher Grace as a media adviser and Anthony Michael Hall as a director of intelligence, are convinced he can clean up this mess and put a notch in the “win” column. But fighting insurgents is about winning hearts and minds, not asking for more troops, he’s told by the US Ambassador (Alan Ruck) and the US Secretary of State (Sian Thomas). Naturally, that’s what he does. He’s ordered to hold off on his recommendation until after the Afghani election, which McMahon’s aide-de-camp (Aymen Hamdouchi) explains the Afghani people don’t understand in the first place, considering the president is alive and well.
Meanwhile, the current troops are confused over medals for “courageous restraint” to avoid more civilian casualties, and the civilians ask the foreign troops to leave. The thorniness of this morass builds as McMahon welcomes media attention about his recommendations, then visits France and Germany for their support, culminating in a sobering boots-on-the-ground attack that leaves the back-slapping bravado behind. A quicker pace and tighter structure could have helped War Machine pack more power; instead, it resembles the voting lines that McMahon likens to “that slow shuffle toward freedom.”