With his bow-legged power-walk, low-boil narcissism and tough-guy snarl, Brad Pitt is the comic ghost in David Michod’s all-too-real War Machine. The film, which is premiering on Netflix this week (and also getting an extremely limited theatrical release), was inspired by the late Michael Hastings’s book The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. That book was itself inspired by the author’s own controversial Rolling Stone article, the one that detailed some curiously forthright, booze-soaked encounters with U.S. General Stanley McChrystal and his men, and famously led to the general’s dismissal.
But Michod’s film is not so much about the officers’ transgressions as it is about the ceaseless merry-go-round of mismanagement and delusion that came to define America’s ‘00s efforts in Afghanistan. It’s a complex subject, to say the least. And the film struggles at times with trying to make parodic jabs at a serious topic – it never quite seems to go far enough with its satire. But Pitt’s ridiculous, wildly over-the-top performance somehow keeps it all together. Whenever he’s onscreen, the film finds its soul, its heart, and its funny bone.
Pitt plays Glen McMahon, a decorated four-star general and Army Ranger who’s been given leadership of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He’s excited about the opportunity, but, as an opening voiceover tells us, McMahon is just another in a long line of generally disposable officers who have been brought in to clean up the mess: When things don’t go well, “you sack the guy you think is responsible and you bring in some other guy. And in 2009, that other guy was Glen.”
Eager to prove himself on the battlefield, a master of systems organization, and “humble in that way that says, ‘my humility makes me better than you,’” the “Glenimal” is determined to shake things up. “I didn’t come here to manage this war, and I sure as shit didn’t come to finish it out,” he growls. “I came to win.” He adds: “This war will be won with the unassailable might and power of our ideals,” and the sudden glow on his face suggests that he came up with that line on the spot, and is quite proud of himself for doing so.
This is a tricky role. McMahon is a gung-ho guy, but he’s not exactly a brute, or even entirely a fool. Though Pitt’s mannerisms are broad and comical – and it would have been easy to make him a figure of ridicule and call it a day – he and Michod still present McMahon as a man caught between heroism and pathos. He’s brave in many ways, but the times have passed him by: This is his first big war, and he’s determined to make the most of it, the way one might take advantage of a big corporate promotion. As a result, we never quite know what to think of McMahon in any given moment, and that sense of uncertainty brings the film to life; it keeps us watching and wondering.
With Pitt going so big, everyone else – and the supporting cast is huge – seems curiously tethered and naturalistic. Maybe that’s because the film has so much to get through: It has to tell us that Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley) is a powerless figurehead. It has to show the ordinary soldiers’ own frustrations about their mission. The anger and frustration of Afghan families caught in the crossfire. The cynicism of the Defense Department bureaucrats nominally in charge of this mess. The toll on McMahon’s own family, and his much-neglected wife (played by Meg Tilly). These other elements are played mostly straight, and they’re at times quite touching. But can we applaud the humanism while lamenting the lack of a savage bite? What if Dr. Strangelove had bothered to give depth and dimension to Jack D. Ripper, or explored the inner conflicts of Buck Turgidson’s secretary? Sometimes, ruthlessness is called for. War Machine is a memorable movie that should have been an unforgettable one.