Honestly I did not want to watch another war movie. I’m sick to death with war on film, especially when portrayed as a heroic and justified propaganda, regardless of opponents. In my book, wars are games played with someone else’s lives for the benefit of those in power, particularly where they are conducted on someone else’s soil. That is not to say that there are not good or even great war films (Das Boot and Downfall spring to mind), which demonstrate not just the horror of war but also the crumbling impact of failure.
Luckily for me, the title of this example of the genre is ironic rather than symbolic, and refers to the fictional General Glen McMahon, modelled closely on the notorious General Stanley McChrystal. It was therefore just the sort of project to switch on the imagination of Brad Pitt, without whose presence as actor and executive producer this might otherwise have turned into a very ordinary war movie like thousands of others.
In fact, this is barely a war film at all, until two thirds of the way in. War Machine is a black comedy about the nature of the US mission in the war in Afghanistan, about which I blogged some years back. The very absurdities of the venture I was writing about are what become meat and drink to War Machine, satirising precisely why it was an impossible scenario, just as Dr Strangelove satirises why the notion of nuclear war and nuclear peace are impossible. In this case:
- US marines did not know why they were there, and questioned commanders who struggled to find a sensible answer
- Washington is just as confused about the mission and very firmly did not understand the culture or nature of Afghan society. Imposing democracy on a society based on control by village elders was never a remote possibility.
- Afghans did not understand the concept of elections but did understand they did not want an invading force present, where Washington saw it as a force to liberate.
- The Taliban were always happy to bide their time and take parts of Helmand province that became essentially no-go areas to American and British troops.
Parachuting into a troubled environment where the mission was, allegedly, peacekeeping and education a team led by a gung ho marine who knew only missions to push back and win rather than contain was never going to end happily, and so it proved.
The fictional McMahon, whose relationship with the Dick Cheney figure is uncomfortable, to put it mildly, cools his heels pending the Afghan and then American elections because of political sensibilities.
Pitt’s McMahon reminds me of a lumbering silverback gorilla, the dominant male who does not take kindly to interference or questioning of his motives or actions. Funnily enough, his replacement in the movie, General Bob White (the ubiquitous and uncredited Russell Crowe), displays equally simian body language, though in reality both are quite unlike the more urbane and sophisticated Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, respectively.
When met with opposition McMahon pulls faces worthy of a petulant 5-year old and goes into an icy political mode reserved for those who are nominally on his side but should be cheerleading. Fact is, this General wants not only Yes Men but those who trust him and his leadership implicitly, and that includes his lords and masters in Washington.
However, even his own loyal team are struggling to understand the mission here, which is why McMahon’s response is to go on the offensive. He demands 40,000 extra troops, gets 30,000. To a soldier that is defeatist talk.then goes on a PR tour around Europe to gain support and men from the “allies” in the allegedly multinational force, allies who are equally sceptical about foreign policy adventures when support at home is in the negatives.
Thus it is that at a talk in Paris where McMahon tries to blind his audience with management science and complicated diagrams, a German politician, played in a quite exquisite cameo by the wonderful Tilda Swinton, breaks through the claptrap and wounds McMahon to the core. He is a soldier, not a politician, and never the twain will understand one another, so how he came to be regarded as a renegade, runaway commander is not wholly surprising.
Regardless, the offensive must go ahead – even without the explicit backing of the president. A British officer gets rebuked when he points out that the targets planned are full of… nothing. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost, and so it proves. So in comes yet another commander and McMahon is sent out to grass. Why were they there? Only to fill a vacuum, nothing more, to keep the graphs moving in the right direction. Such is life.
The performances in this film are uniformly excellent. I’ve got to say I just love Swinton and think every performance she makes is Oscar-worthy. She pulls off this brief moment of undercutting the hero with an elegant precision you could not have bettered with a thousand actresses.
Another brilliant cameo is worthy of a mention too: Ben Kingsley playing the real life Afghan president (courtesy of notably corrupt elections), Hamid Karzai. This is a role Kingsley was born to play. He does it with a comic panache you never knew he possessed.
I was also impressed by Aymen Hamdouchi as Captain Badi Basim, a scholarly Afghan National Army officer who becomes McMahon’s Aide-de-Camp, puzzling out how he is supposed to behave in the presence of an exalted 4-star General.
But ultimately this is the Pitt show. This is to my mind one of Brad’s greater performances, up there with his gypsy boxer in Snatch and his cynical numbers man in The Big Short. OK, so people will always have their favourites, but he does something essential here that could in other hands have gone badly wrong: he gives the audience just a hint of sympathy for McMahon.
Not everybody liked this movie though. Vox’s review (see here) intoned:
“Netflix’s War Machine, starring Brad Pitt, is a disappointingly flat wartime farce. The film could have been a stellar sendup on the order of Dr. Strangelove or In the Loop, but it never really comes together.”