Great satire has to do more than skewer a subject; it also has to show some respect for the central subject. Those who are looking for a depantsing of the modern American military in War Machine should end the film by reviewing their own ambition within the confines of their job. Many people have signed up for jobs because of the past glory that that occupation held and likely no longer exists in the same way. The world has changed and become a larger quagmire of impersonal interactions, inflated information, gridlocks and pageantry. Because David Michod’s film takes multiple professions to task for their theatrical displays—from generals, to public servants, to journalists, to presidents, and even pop stars—War Machine becomes a solid satire. It’s less an anti-war comedy and more of an anti-occupation satire. That is to say, it’s anti-occupation in regard to modern warfare but also anti-occupation in regard to modern jobs.
War Machine is loosely based on both the Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General” and the book The Operators, both of which were written by Michael Hastings, whose article effectively ruined the career of General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal was the commander of all U.S. and NATO armed forces in Afghanistan in 2010, when President Obama was attempting to wind down the USA’s presence in the region. “The Runaway General” embarrassed the armed forces by showing high ranking officials openly question and mock the President and Vice President in a profile that became a takedown of a regime, but that takedown didn’t halt the coronation of another general to march in and attempt to solve an impossible situation in a carbon copy manner. The military industrial complex isn’t exactly complex after all, men are waiting in the wings for their shot at military glory and as long as we’re giving them a hefty budget that could run a nation itself, there’s going to be an abundance of men waiting in the wings for their chance to prove their military mettle. With McChrystal already depantsed in 2010, but American government still infatuated with bloated military budgets, Michod’s written and directed adaptation of Hastings’ book tosses out the portrait of a fallen general and instead makes an ode to the American identity of hard work and what happens when that celebrated work ethic isn’t given an actual job to do, but is instead given a task to appear busy. Idle hands meeting immense training has consequences and also a sadness for someone who has no place in the modern world.
Brad Pitt plays the fictional General Glen McMahon. And though some descriptors of McChrystal’s wide-stance running and claw-like hand motions are enacted here, Pitt is given free-range to create his own character and isn’t beholden to mimicry of McChrystal. Pitt’s McMahon has a goofy WWII scene-chewing quality—one side of his mouth is always one side of the Joker’s grin and he speaks in an Aldo Raines drawl—but he’s no Inglourious Basterds dropout doofus. Using Scoot McNairy as a fictional journalist and narrator Sean Cullen, War Machine opens with a monologue on American hypocrisy (starting with the line, “Ugh, America.”). But after Cullen opines, his narration positions McMahon as worthy of our respect; he’s highly educated—having graduated from Yale before seeing the battlefield—and he has won the hearts and minds of the men under his command. That “Bubble” of men would follow McMahan anywhere. The Bubble—McMahon’s inner circle of assistants, intelligence experts and tech and PR wizards (played by John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Anthony Michael Hall and Topher Grace)—do inflate McMahon’s ego and guide his belief that he alone “can crack this nut” of ridding combatants in a country that doesn’t want their help and whose very presence gives a reason for the combatants to exist alongside them. But McMahon doesn’t see himself as God’s gift to the military, pre-ordained to preside over it; rather he views himself as the head of colony whose very success depends on the hard work, intelligence, and empathy of those under his command.
The humor of War Machine is similar to that of King of the Hill and that cartoonish quality does lend itself nicely to a weave of jokes about the dog and pony show NATO’s Afghanistan occupation has become. A fresh-on-the-job McMahon wants all countries to be involved in his meetings but some, like Austria, shrug their shoulders because their country has only committed two people to this war, simply to show support to their agreement. Others, like the Germans, have committed troops but they aren’t allowed to leave the building. Bodies are present to show support back home in the fight against extremists abroad, but everyone is playing political theater. The only country that is continuingly trying to “win” in this occupation is whichever American general has been called up for their shot at glory (after the previous became an inglourious basterd).
When McMahon takes a survey of Afghanistan he finds that a main export is heroin because the American government cannot supply cotton plants (which would thrive in the region) because then Afghanistan would become trade competitors with American farmers; although the US promises new jobs, those jobs can’t compete with the Afghanis occupiers which cancels one of their biggest promises to the region but sells well back home. President Karzai, played by Ben Kingsley, declines an invite to join McMahon, because he’s “seen the country before;” he’s later shown enjoying Dumb & Dumber on his new Blu-ray player instead. When McMahon leaks his proposal for 40,000 more American troops to the media and tells 60 Minutes that he’s yet to even meet with Obama, a meeting is set up, but just for the cameras.
Although the tone vacillates between Mike Judge blue-collar humor (including shades of Office Space) and The Big Short-styled social commentary of a military system to big to be seen failing, War Machine is the type of film that should be equally very funny and maddening for pro-Obama and anti-Obama audiences, pro-war and anti-war audiences. That’s because War Machine is about the global machinations of work and how stop-and-start and counterproductive so many of our occupations have become.
The military man can’t win a war because the generals preside over a theatrical show of soundbites that need to play at home without causing casualties that would play poorly at home. The soldier is rewarded for showing restraint and patience in identifying a non-enemy because the enemy is so frequently unidentifiable. The journalist can go viral and win awards for an important portrait and critique of modern warfare, but they can’t stop the machine behind it, which will just replace one chief with another (same with the enemy that the West is fighting). And the pop star that appears on the cover issue of that journalistic takedown, in this case Lady Gaga, will be holding machine guns and draped with bandolier of bullets over her nude body because despite having a current war that the world is attempting to disengage from the American citizen identity is still closely aligned to and aroused by war. That’s the larger circular narrative at play in Michod’s intelligent and observational script and the world will continue to spin that way despite the, perhaps, decent intentions of the people caught up in it.
Pitt and Michod slowly reveal that McMahon has the same good intentions that the American government espouses like a press release when they invade. What the government and military seem to forget is that intentions don’t erase an invasion. Pitt plays McMahon not as a bad guy, but as an educated man who was educated to excel in one a field that is vastly different than the glory that World War II provided for the US military on a global stage. It’s in this area where War Machine becomes a complex satire. When McMahon has a silent dinner with his wife (Meg Tilly) who’s only spent an average of 30 days a year with her husband since 9/11. “It has to count for something,” she says, looking hopeful, as she hides the recognition that both she and her husband are aware that it doesn’t.
Because we’ve grown to respect McMahon despite despising his actions, War Machine ends up firing on most cylinders. Despite some tonal stops and starts of its own, War Machine gets the job done. It’s frequently hilarious, downbeat, and flexes intelligence (and some all-star cameos).
War Machine will be available on Netfilx May 26; it will also play in select cities.