This weekend, watch Brad Pitt’s new dark comedy about American military involvement overseas.
Brad Pitt’s new Netflix-original satire film War Machine is very serious about its fun—so serious that sometimes you don’t know when to laugh or grimace at the sputtering dysfunction of American exceptionalism. And yet, that’s the entire point.
Directed by David Michôd and inspired by the late Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings’ book The Operators, first and foremost it’s a thinly fictionalized profile of former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal, whose downfall came in summer 2010 after the release of Hastings’ Rolling Stone feature, a bombshell story that revealed McChrystal and several of his men shit-talking the Obama administration. McChrystal was called back to Washington and canned in short order.
In the film, for the sake of greater creative license, the Hastings figure is Sean McCullen (played by Scoot McNairy). McChrystal is Pitt’s farcical rendition of a hokey happy warrior, General Glen McMahon, a real sir-yes-sir type who reads a book titled Excellence every night before bed and believes America can “win” once they give the right man for the job—that is, him—the resources he says he needs.
The double meaning of the movie’s title is a jab at both America’s military industrial complex, whose inertia drives what Barack Obama himself has called “perpetual war footing,” as well as the war “machines” that complex produces: hard-nosed doctrinaire generals who pound the square peg of military solutions into the round hole of a centuries-old sociopolitical quagmire. A muddled mess caused in large part by colonialism. (Maybe a roundtable of white guys with rulers drawing arbitrary borderlines that put competing tribal factions under the same flag was a bad idea.)
Pitt, whose work has taken a clear civic turn, employs the Oo-rah! humor of military bros to oil the wheels of a larger theme: General McMahon—even though he’s too much of a believer to notice—is a neocolonial extension of that oppressive lineage. And because approximately $4.79 trillion dollars of our taxes in the last fifteen years have been appropriated for defense, so, too, are we.
Although it’s a comedy, as a piece of cinema, War Machine has so far gotten a lot of flak for its un-cinematic qualities. There are undoubtedly some head-scratching directorial decisions: a needlessly long arc about McMahon and the Boys’ trip to Europe here, a seemingly non-essential seven minutes spent introducing a charming but ultimately inconsequential character there.
However, the drudgery in between the long stretches of energetic comic relief appears intentional—meant to mimic the Obama era’s lukewarm Middle East wars. Shot in low-saturation desert-y colors, the McChrystal/McMahon story is without the bustle of the early 2000s invasions (a la Jarhead); the constant tension of following a bomb defuser (The Hurt Locker); or the climax of an historic SEAL team raid (Zero Dark Thirty). And the era overall has neither the carnal, sensory overindulgence that accompanied ‘Nam nor the clear hero-vs.-villain narrative of World War II.
And as Pitt and Michôd have said in interviews, with no draft in effect and only 0.4 percent of Americans active military personnel, we’re all literally disconnected from the battle as it drifts for sixteen years and counting. So War Machine instead opts to poke fun at the giggle-worthy aspects of dogma floundering in the face of its slow-burning failure.
Funny montages of the mission’s absurdity and incongruence produce some gems. McMahon furrows his brow, for example (and he does that a lot), upon seeing soldiers in a valley standing guard over acres and acres of opium-producing poppy fields. He learns it’s done to win over the impoverished locals who use the crop to support their livelihood—and in some cases, unsurprisingly, their highs.
“Can’t they grow sumn’else?” McMahon asks the fixer.
“Mm—yeah. Cotton would grow here,” the fixer replies.
So why the state-sponsored drug trafficking in Afghanistan amidst a war on drugs back home that incarcerates millions? Because, the fixer tells McMahon, your Congress won’t allow any USAID funds to be directed towards the cultivation of any crop that would create more competition for U.S. farmers. Bam.
The satire format enables Pitt and Michôd to make these points with a snarky jab rather than a melodramatic punch: No need to tell the jock playing Whack-a-Mole that he can’t win. Just sit back, grab some popcorn, and laugh at him as he tries.
The Michael Hastings-inspired narrator and author, Sean Cullen, comes in when Michôd and Pitt elect to tell rather than show. While at times a bit on the nose, Cullen cleverly sums up ancillary characters at the outset of a scene or delivers equally pithy explainer monologues that read between the lines of officious phrases like “counterinsurgency.”
No need to tell the jock playing Whack-a-Mole that he can’t win. Just sit back, grab some popcorn, and laugh at him as he tries.
For all of the ill-fated “I’m better than you because I’m more humble than you” showboating of McMahon, his faults as a character serve as a compelling foil to the cynicism of the caricatured civilian establishment—the suits who desire just enough of a war to help Democrats avoid their perennial worry of looking weak, but not enough of a war to make Democrats cringe at the optics of enacting a massive troop surge after running a largely anti-war campaign. Or as one of the Washington officials puts it to McMahon: “You’re not here to win. You’re here to clean up the mess. Get your PowerPoint ready and show how everything’s moving in the right direction.”
Which brings us to Pitt’s ostensible thesis: America can’t admit to losing, no matter how many L’s we take.
Cullen, the narrator, laments how his Rolling Stone feature didn’t cause a period of national reflection once the scandal’s sensation faded, and he requests that “someone important ask what any of this says about us.” Brad Pitt essentially answered that question with an “I will” by making this film. And it’s his poignant message—peppered with laughs to ease the pain—that makes War Machine a malaise worth watching.