Monday, May 29, 2017

'War Machine' review

I've already said quite a bit about Netflix in recent weeks, and I don't feel the need to discuss all of my ideas and opinions once again. The streaming giant has captured the film world thanks to the inclusion of Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories in the Cannes Film Festival lineup, which prompted increased tensions in the already tricky relationship between Netflix and the studios. But while all of the excitement has been centered in the south of France, the burgeoning distributor is releasing their biggest original film yet this weekend. War Machine comes from director David Michod, and it's a mid-budget war movie that stars Brad Pitt and feels like the kind of thing you would expect to see from a major studio. The fact that this is coming from Netflix and that its release is being handled in such a nonchalant fashion is just one more reason for the studios to tremble- this is slowly becoming the new normal.

But what about the film itself? I'll always applaud Netflix for taking a risk on any creative project, but does War Machine work? The film has been described as a Dr. Strangelove-like riff on the Afghanistan war, with more than a few shades of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H thrown in for good measure. Michod has described the film as "tonally schizophrenic" which is a statement that rings true throughout the entire film- and not necessarily in a good way. While the first act does a good job establishing the main players with Brad Pitt chewing all of the scenery he can get his hands on, War Machine feels like a half-baked collection of ideas and stories. It alternates between dry absurdist humor and dull plotting, struggling to make any sense of the message it's trying to send. War Machine poses the idea that war is both hellish and absurd, a proposition that makes sense on paper but fails to ignite much dramatic intrigue in execution. The result is a tedious disappointment, one that feels especially upsetting considering the strong talent and exceptional production values.

It's the start of President Barack Obama's first term in office, and the war in Afghanistan is not going well. They need someone who can come in and clean up the mess- they need General Glen McMahon (Pitt). The kind of clinically insane person that only the military could create, McMahon is a leadership expert, a dynamic personality, and also kind of an idiot. He believes that he's coming in to win the war, and he's prepared to do absolutely anything to do so. Behind Glen is a loyal crew of equally dim-witted soldiers who buy into all of his BS. There's Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), a West Point classmate of Glen and his right hand man- well, if you don't count Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen), a true devotee of Glen's philosophies who practically exists as his manservant. Cory Staggart (John Magaro) is his chief strategist, Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes) is the fireball of the group, Andy Moon (RJ Cyler) is his tech guy, while Simon Ball (Daniel Betts) and Matt Little (Topher Grace) handle PR. And all of these guys have one thing in common- they're both hopelessly dumb and profoundly arrogant.

In his time in Afghanistan, Glen makes one fatal miscalculation- he doesn't understand why he's there. Despite the pleadings of Washington insider Pat McKinnon (Alan Ruck) to not ask for any additional troops and to just keep things in order, Glen decides that his best move is to create a bold new strategy that involves taking a province previously deemed untouchable for American forces. Everyone in Washington is against this move and Obama won't even give him any facetime, which leads to a good deal of anger and mistrust between the two sides. But when a Rolling Stone reporter (Scoot McNairy) shows up in Afghanistan to profile McMahon and his crew, everything will come tumbling down, leading Glen closer and closer to the inevitability of failure.

Essentially, War Machine is stuck trying to be three movies at once- a ludicrous war comedy in the vein of Dr. Strangelove, a Scorsese-esque rise-and-fall tale similar to Todd Phillips' recent War Dogs, and a straight war movie. The problem that the film quickly runs into is that director David Michod doesn't do any of these things particularly well. The comedy bits are among the movie's strongest components, but Michod never wants to commit to the farce. Imagine if Stanley Kubrick decided to turn some of Strangelove's funniest sequences into dead serious examinations of the impact of war- that's what this film does and it doesn't do it particularly well. Michod tries his hand at Scorsese, but can't conjure the same energy, and the war sequences are some of the dullest I've seen. What you're left with is a movie that tries too hard to do too much, leaving the audience with a whole lot of nothing.

War Machine also tries to explain the character of General Glen McMahon, which is a very poor decision that leads nowhere. When Scoot McNairy's Rolling Stone beat writer (McNairy is also the film's narrator) introduces McMahon, he positions him as a larger-than-life figure who exemplifies everything that pops into your mind when you think of the military. The tightly controlled schedule, the finely tuned physical shape, the devotion to leadership and strength- it's all present in the crazy brain of Glen McMahon. He's a caricature of a general, and Brad Pitt plays the character as such. From the awkward mannerisms to the uncomfortable physical presence, Pitt's McMahon does not feel like a real human being. And yet, for some reason unknown to me, Michod decides that he needs to give McMahon some kind of heart and soul. Maybe it's because the character is loosely based on the real life of General Stanley McChrystal, or maybe Michod just thought he could pull it off.

But you can't humanize a caricature. You can't expect the audience to empathize with the actions and behaviors of someone who doesn't feel like a real person. Michod tries- he gives McMahon a wife, he plays on the pathos of his downfall, and he seems to want the audience to like the character. All of this fails, of course, because it's something that simply can't be done. He doesn't attempt to humanize any of the supporting characters, who are almost all portrayed as hopelessly arrogant idiots, which makes his attempt for the audience to relate to McMahon that much more bizarre. McMahon is the guy that we're supposed to laugh at- he's the embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern war and the military culture that exists today. Michod doesn't understand this, and we're left questioning what the hell we're even watching in the first place.

All of this goes back to the fact that War Machine feels like a movie trying its hand at a variety of tones and ideas and failing to make any of them compelling or effective. There are plenty of ways to criticize the Afghanistan War and the folly of the people who led it, but in order to make either a good anti-war movie or a good satire, you have to commit. Michod wants to make the audience laugh, but he also wants his film to have a conscious, to make the audience really examine why this war was so doomed in the first place. What he doesn't understand is that good satire leads to contemplation- it's the reason why Dr. Strangelove is as funny as it is terrifying. If Michod had really committed to make a biting critique of the military, this film really would have worked. Instead, it's just a hodgepodge of nonsense that quickly grows more and more tedious as the story progresses.

War Machine is an impressive step forward for Netflix from a production standpoint- this really does feel like a big-budget spectacle. The music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is incredible, the cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (who was also behind the camera for Alien: Covenant) is sleek and sharp, and I applaud Michod for trying something so radically different. Unfortunately, I'm gonna have to mark this one down as a failed experiment. War Machine's inability to commit to a tone or even a clear narrative quickly proves disastrous, making this a long slog to get through. There are a lot of interesting ideas and approaches but Michod never finds a groove, and the film suffers because of it. Ultimately, while War Machine should be a cutting and savage parody of war, it ends up committing the cardinal sin of satire- it's brutally dull.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                             (5.7/10) 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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