Friday, May 26, 2017

On Netflix: WAR MACHINE (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by David Michod. Cast: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Alan Ruck, Lakeith Stanfield, Meg Tilly, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Anthony Hayes, Josh Stewart, Pico Alexander, Daniel Betts, Griffin Dunne, Aymen Hamdouchi, Nicholas Jones, Hopper Penn, Sian Thomas, Georgina Rylance. (Unrated, 122 mins)

Built around the most cartoonish and self-indulgent performance of Brad Pitt's career, the muddled WAR MACHINE, the most high-profile Netflix Original film yet, is another in a long line of absurdist political satires that try to poke fun at government and military institutions and end up coming off as irritatingly smug and self-satisfied. With rare exceptions like Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) and Barry Levinson's WAG THE DOG (1997)--films that found the right tone, stuck with it, and didn't get sidetracked by ham-fisted messaging--this subgenre is filled with the misbegotten likes of WRONG IS RIGHT (1982), WAR, INC (2008), and THE INTERVIEW (2014) to name a few, though in all fairness, WRONG IS RIGHT might actually be worth another look as some of its ludicrous plot has become reality much like entertainment-driven TV news has in the decades since NETWORK (1976). "Inspired" by the book The Operators, Michael Hastings' expansion of his 2010 Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General," WAR MACHINE stars Pitt as four-star Army Gen. Glen McMahon, a fictional stand-in for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was appointed head of Coalition Forces in Afghanistan in 2009. McMahon doesn't feel the war is being won because "it's not being led," and despite orders from President Obama, along with reminders from the US ambassador to Afghanistan (Alan Ruck), and advisers who never actually served, McMahon ignores the plan to "assess" the situation and Obama's wish to wrap it up and "bring it on home," and instead plans to ask for 40,000 more troops and take control of Helmand Province and Qandahar, two areas that the coalition has already written off. McMahon's chief duty is counter-insurgency or, as narrator Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), a fictionalized Hastings, puts it, "Try to convince the country you've invaded that you're actually here to help."

McMahon is accompanied by his close-knit team of generals and soldiers who all come across as fawning sycophants to this military legend--nicknamed "The Glenimal"--none more disturbingly devoted than anger management case Gen. Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), a character based on future disgraced Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn/Pulver is portrayed here as a raging asshole with a dedication to McMahon that borders on a stalking man-crush. There's also de facto PR guys Staggart (John Magaro) and Little (Topher Grace, cast radically against type as "Topher Grace"), but all of them take a backseat to Pitt's scenery chewing. Pitt's McMahon is so far removed from the real McChrystal that changing his name was a no-brainer: he barks and grunts like the actor's Aldo Raine in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, gesticulates with his right hand balled up in a claw, walks around in a bow-legged strut, makes pained faces, and generally acts and moves like a combination of Popeye and Sterling Hayden's Gen. Jack D. Ripper from DR. STRANGELOVE if Ripper just had a stroke. It's an overly broad performance more fitting for an SNL guest-hosting gig, and it might've worked if writer/director David Michod could've settled on a tone.

The satirical elements work best in the early-going, with McMahon introduced taking a shit before chest-out strutting through the airport to the tune of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Confused," or McMahon meeting Afghan president Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley) and giving him a moment to finish praying until it's revealed that the president is not kneeling toward Mecca, but actually trying to set up his new Blu-ray player (Karzai is later seen sick in bed laughing hysterically at DUMB AND DUMBER). McMahon also gets off a few good zingers like walking into a command center and scoffing at what's on TV, saying "Let's lose the Fox News...we don't need a bunch of angry perverts yelling at us all day." But it doesn't take long for Michod to lose focus, as the satire is largely abandoned in favor of making a serious look at McMahon's ambitions blowing up in his face. His wife (Meg Tilly) spends their 30th anniversary lamenting that, by her calculations, they've spent an average of 30 days a year together for the previous eight years, and Cullen tags along on a trip to Europe to visit other coalition government officials, during which time McMahon and everyone else have a few too many drinks at a Paris bar and start openly trash-talking President Obama and VP Joe Biden (Hillary Clinton is also a character, played by Sian Thomas, though she's largely left alone and depicted as an image-conscious company woman). The resulting article ended McChrystal's military career, but even as the same fate befalls McMahon, the biggest question you might have is why is the story being told this way? As things get more serious and events start becoming less absurd and more centered on actual incidents, Pitt's mannered, over-the-top performance starts to resemble talk-show Robin Williams, a sure sign that Michod, the Australian auteur behind 2010's ANIMAL KINGDOM and 2014's underrated THE ROVER, simply deferred to the wishes of producer Brad Pitt regarding how star Brad Pitt should treat the material. Considering his degree of fame and tabloid notoriety, Pitt is an actor who relishes offbeat and decidedly non-mainstream projects (THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, KILLING THEM SOFTLY, THE COUNSELOR, BY THE SEA). In the end, WAR MACHINE is less a cutting, cynical, satirical look at the military and war and more a Brad Pitt vanity project where the actor is clearly off on his own in some other movie instead of the one his director and co-stars are working on.

The many faces of Brad Pitt in WAR MACHINE: 

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