Skip to main content

Um, boss, I’m pretty sure the Afghan Ambassador here is from Afghanistan.

War Machine
(2017)

(SPOILERS) How many War on Terror movies have to be made – let alone War on Terror satires – before Hollywood realises it simply doesn’t have what it takes to interrogate the ongoing charade with any degree of acumen, diligence or (in this case) wit. This isn’t just true of that particular ongoing excursion into imperialism, of course, it’s largely the case with any would-be politically-attuned vehicles (see the recent Our Brand Is Crisis), that go for soft ineffectuality, or knowing aloofness, when something, anything would be preferable. Anger’s one mode. Insight’s even better. They’re both absent from War Machine, a fictionalised account the attempts by General Stanley McChrystal (here as Brad Pitt’s Glen McMahon) to preside over a turnaround in the US armed forces fortunes in Afghanistan despite the realisation he’s been sent in to oversee a withdrawal. The result is unfocussed and rambling, unsure who its targets are or even if it holds a position. Other than being above it all.


Pitt’s cartoonish performance, all exaggerated posturing and delivery, has come in for a lot of stick, but that’s only fair in as much as he’s acting in a different, more interesting movie than the one David Michôd is making (which Michôd also wrote, based on Michael Hastings’ The Operators). Pitt’s movie, as bold, brazen and as uncompromisingly unsubtle as its main character, might have fired salvos at all comers, sharing out versions of the same dumb rhetoric McMahon spouts to parties concerned while reserving particular ire for the whys and wherefores of the conflict itself, which go unmentioned (other than some vague headshaking).


As it is, we’re presented with McMahon as a “master of systems organisations” who refuses to accept that he hasn’t been sent to Afghanistan to win, who chides “Seems to me everyone’s forgetting we’re fighting a war here” and has designs on bringing the most difficult region to heel as a signal of his greater intent. Faced with POTUS’ refusal to provide extra troops and delays on everything he intends to institute (told he will have to wait while local elections are re-held owing to corruption, he dismisses such concerns with “How is Washington any different?”), he goes on 60 Minutes and creates a political embarrassment for Obama. There’s a certain Catch-22 logic operating here that Pitt probably thought he could tap (and since he’d had previous success working with Antipodean Andrew Dominik, he probably thought Michôd’s outsider view would be equally incisive), but the picture only rarely approaches such areas in an engaged or astute manner.


President KarzaiAnd what is this new direction?
McMahon: It is most important to me that we build Afghanistan. Together we build Afghanistan into a free and prosperous nation. Free from fear and conflict.
President Karzai: I see, I see. It sounds a lot like the old direction.

His audience with Ben Kingsley’s West-sanctioned President Karzai, in which he preaches the new direction for the country, has the right air of flippancy towards what the military think they’re doing, but a whole spiel on counter insurgency is subsequently delivered as a dry voiceover monologue from Scoot McNairy’s (Rolling Stone) journalist Sean Cullen; “The thing about counterinsurgency is that it doesn’t really work”. He posits that McMahon’s response to this would be “Cos nobody’s ever done it right”.


This is fertile ground, that insurgents are near impossible to defeat, but countermoves are equally ineffective, requiring you to convince the population you’re there here to help, making you part of a popularity contest, along the way installing a local government, providing security, training up the local forces so they can provide security to help themselves (or at least try to) and stimulating the local economy, but it’s too impassive to have any edge or impact. There’s a scene where McMahon asks why growers are producing heroin crops, and he is told they can’t produce cotton because it would be in competition with US product. Michôd gets close to the resource plundering that is the key to Afghanistan, but then loses his nerve and retreats to the safer ground of surface, easily mockable military farce.


Hence, McMahon is rebuked with “All the winning we were ever going to do, we did in the first six months. Since then, we’ve just been making a mess. You’re not here to win. You’re here to clean up the mess”. The idea that Afghanistan is simply a disaster is a convenient narrative hiding ulterior goals, though; make the entire operation look like a botch, and it becomes more palatable. Simply a mistake. Whether Pitt is aware he has served such an agenda is debatable; probably not, but then few will likely care either way. I doubt many with the opportunity to sit through a “free” Brad Pitt movie on Netflix are going to last the distance; By the Sea has more attitude.


At one point, Tilda Swinton cameos as a German politician spelling out what we’ve already had spelled out several times already by our narrator and in various conversations; it’s overkill. The incessant narration is a fairly substantial signpost that something is seriously wrong. I love a good voiceover, but this one is entirely guiding the plot as a substitute for storytelling. When we need to be told who the central character is over the course of five, there’s something askew. The flipside is that a similar approach actually worked for The Big Short (from the same producers). Of course, there they knew what their goal was.


Part of the problem is that Michôd isn’t a satirist, certainly on this evidence, and it’s telling that the one scene that lands feels like it has strayed in from a different movie. Which is also a different movie to the different movie Pitt thinks he’s in. Maybe Michôd simply felt it wouldn’t be a War on Terror picture without a scene of conflict. Maybe he thought a scene of actual combat would provide something sobering, akin to Yossarian’s traumatic memory in Catch-22. So the scene in which Lakeith Stanfield’s corporal, taking matters into his own hands when his squad comes under fire, discovers his mortar bomb has been responsible for killing a child is strong stuff, but tonally out of place. More on target is McMahon appearing on the scene and blathering on to the grieving father about helping to rebuild; Stanfield’s earlier quizzing of the bewildered general about his nonsense rhetoric is also well done, albeit in both cases we shouldn’t need to be walked by the hand with this sort of thing. It reflects the essential lack of faith in the audience throughout.


There are some very good performances in War Machine. Anthony Michael Hall’s a particular standout as McMahon’s devoted, hot-headed right-hand man Major General Pulver (loosely based on Mike Flynn). Nicholas Jones, Alan Ruck and Griffin Dunne are strong as obstructive bureaucrats, and Meg Tilly is excellent as McMahon’s church mouse wife. And the Russell Crowe cameo (as, essentially, David Petraeus) as the next guy up to replace McMahon, is an amusing send-off. But they’re a good cast mostly wasted. 


Cullen concludes by asking why the media didn’t ask bigger questions regarding McMahon’s removal, but damningly, you could say exactly the same of the movie. What’s the surprise here? That the US military’s methods are incompetent? That’s not news, and it isn’t terribly rousingly interesting the way Michôd has told it. Perhaps Hollywood would be better off sticking with straightforward firefights (American Sniper, 13 Hours, the forthcoming Bruckheimer-produced Horse Soldiers), rather than making a pretence of critiques.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Other monks will meet their deaths here. And they too will have blackened fingers. And blackened tongues.

The Name of the Rose (1986) (SPOILERS) Umberto Eco wasn’t awfully impressed by Jean Jacques-Annaud’s adaptation of his novel – or “ palimpsest of Umberto Eco’s novel ” as the opening titles announce – to the extent that he nixed further movie versions of his work. Later, he amended that view, calling it “ a nice movie ”. He also, for balance, labelled The Name of the Rose his worst novel – “ I hate this book and I hope you hate it too ”. Essentially, he was begrudging its renown at the expense of his later “ superior ” novels. I didn’t hate the novel, although I do prefer the movie, probably because I saw it first and it was everything I wanted from a medieval Sherlock Holmes movie set in a monastery and devoted to forbidden books, knowledge and opinions.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.