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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

I’ve crossed the Atlantic to be reasonable.

Dodsworth (1936) (SPOILERS) Prestige Samuel Goldwyn production – signifiers being attaching a reputable director, often William Wyler, to then-popular plays or classical literature, see also Dead End , Wuthering Heights , The Little Foxes , The Best Years of Our Lives , and earning a Best Picture nomination as a matter of course – that manages to be both engrossing and irritating. Which is to say that, in terms of characterisation, Dodsworth rather shows its years, expecting a level of engagement in the relationship between Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) and his wayward, fun-loving wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton) at odds with their unsympathetic behaviour.