David Michôd’s War Machine works well as cautionary tale, not as satire

War MachineWar is Hell, but War Machine is frustrating.

David Michôd’s somewhat-satire of the Obama era’s continued efforts in the Afghanistan insurgency is far from a spirited successor to Dr. Stangelove; it’s more a nuanced look at the sobering complexities of the war through the eyes of fictional general Glen McMahon, based in part on Gen. Stanley McChrystal whose tenure as commander was brief after an errant Rolling Stone article led to his resignation.

Michôd takes Michael Hasting’s book The Operators, a revealing account of McChrystal’s time in Afghanistan, and tries to mold a farce. He focuses in on A-lister Brad Pitt and seems to have coached the veteran actor to play the role as broadly and brashly as possible – one in which Pitt gurgles the dialogue like a wartime caricature and walks around like he’s got a 12-foot stick lodged firmly in his rear end.

The film, infused with a knowing narration by Scoot McNairy (a journalist in the story whose actions eventually lead to McMahon’s resignation), establishes itself early as a lark – with scene after scene showing Pitt’s McMahon patrolling around his base like a sheepdog, surrounded by characters who seem to have easy roles in the satire – Anthony Michael Hall as the tag-a-long barker/second-in-command who jumps to every order, Emory Cohen as the endearing general’s assistant, Topher Grace as the smooth-talking army PR strategist, RJ Cyler as the millennial tech expert, Anthony Hayes as the glaring intensity Navy SEAL on McMahon’s team.

It’s a sharp group for the stage, but Michôd discovers as the film runs on that no amount of side-eyed observations or humor-in-the-mundane moments can mask the truly tragic nature of the Afghanistan insurgency. The writer/director shifts his tone dramatically as the film wears on – as the McMahon, king of the decaying castle, begins to realize his vision for total victory is futile, and that his well-meaning ego might lead to his downfall.

War Machine functions far-better as a sobering critique of the Afghanistan War and its handling than a destitute knee-slapper. Michôd is no stranger to drama – his seedy family crime drama Animal Kingdom and futuristic grit-storm thriller The Rover established him as a blunt, unique storyteller. He does not revel in flash, but takes joy in the dust and rust of his characters and settings – including the random obliqueness of life, evident in the still-bizarre Robert Pattinson “Pretty Girl Rock” scene from The Rover.

His newest film translates those strengths in different ways – he spends a lot of time in the grimy, focused confines of McMahon’s base and the quiet, plain Afghanistan cities. His ballrooms are dimly lit, his palaces more focused on lacking interiors than opulent vistas. He likes the grit and the grime, which well suits him for a war movie. He likes to depict things going poorly, and he’s good at it.

As the two tones (soldier satire and sober war drama) clash with one another, Michôd wisely lets the jokes fade during the second act and allows Pitt’s complicated performance to drive the film’s central message: Afghanistan certainly wasn’t Vietnam, but it was a logistical and philosophical nightmare. And with the change from the Bush to Obama administrations, it suffered from a shift in vision, and a lack of agreement with the Obama administration and the generals running the ground efforts.

War MachinePitt enters the film as a cartoon, but he sheds the overacting after the first act for something more subtle, more telling. His McMahon must eat a plate of humble pie throughout, as his warrior-into-battle mystique gently fades after repeated failures, snubs from D.C., political setbacks and a greater realization of the task at hand. Pitt’s effective in the quieter moments, when his general slowly-but-surely has his confidence etched away by circumstance. It’s not one of the actors’ best roles, but it’s certainly one of his more interesting ones.

The scenes involving McNairy’s journalist covering McMahon’s efforts are crucial to the story, but they struggle due to the lack of resonance with the supporting players. McMahon’s surrogates never become as fleshed-out as they should have been (though Hall’s part comes close); resulting in the material lacking the teeth needed to tie a ribbon on the film. It’s a shame, considering the talent at hand.

But in the film’s shining subplot, Michôd follows a squad tasked to carry out McMahon’s fractured vision. He addresses the troops in one scene, in which an unabashed Marine (the always-reliable Lakeith Stanfield) questions the insurgency approach, which he feels contradicts his training and instincts as a soldier. McMahon is quick to rebut the young corporal’s concerns, defending the grand vision he’s been given to implement.

In the third act, we return to Stanfield’s squad as they carry out a mission that comes under enemy fire. The approach of staying pat and being fired on from a perch wears on Stanfield’s marine, who decides to go on a one-man counter-assault on the compound. He is successful in taking out the enemy sniper, but realizes that his actions have resulted in horrific consequences. All Stanfield can do is sit in a chair, looking up, pondering how screwed up all of this really is.

Later, McMahon must face the human consequences of what has occurred. It’s those moments where Michôd’s focus on the little details hit hard. When he drops the need to be funny, his film leaves a mark.

As effective as this subplot is, it does mesh strangely with the more Mike Judge-friendly material, like President Hamid Karzai (a sorely underused Sir Ben Kingsley) struggling to get his Blu-Ray player set up, or watching Dumb and Dumber while sick, or McMahon and his tech-savvy assistant pretending to have technical difficulties in a videoconference call with one of the general’s Washington D.C. superiors. Those scenes are funny in and of themselves, but they don’t mix with the film’s more impactful narratives.

This is Michôd’s struggle with War Machine.

He begins by trying to get the audience to laugh at how convoluted all of this was, but by films’ end, he’s left you sitting, wondering how something so crucial got so convoluted.

Cory Woodroof is a journalist and film critic based in Nashville, Tennessee. He has written for Lumination Network (Lipscomb University’s student news service), the Nashville Scene, the Country Music Association’s 2012 CMA Fest blog, Brentwood Home Page and other publications. He’s a huge fan of catching the previews before a movie and the leading Space Jam expert in the Southeast.

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