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

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Well, it seems our Mr Steed is not such an efficient watchdog after all.

The Avengers 2.7: The Decapod
A title suggesting some variety of monstrous aquatic threat for Steed and Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith. Alas, the reality is much more mundane. The Decapod refers to a Mongo-esque masked wrestler, one who doesn’t even announce “I will destroy you!” at the top of his lungs. Still, there’s always Philip “Solon” Madoc looking very shifty to pass the time.

Madoc is Stepan, a Republic of the Balkans embassy official and the brother-in-law of President Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino). There’s no love lost between him and his ladies’ man bro, and dark deeds are taking place with the embassy confines, but who is responsible proves elusive. Steed is called in, or rather calls Venus in as a replacement, when Borb’s private secretary is murdered by Mongo. Steed isn’t buying that she slipped and broke her neck in the shower; “I shouldn’t like a similar accident to happen to you” he informs the President.

The trail leads to wrestling bouts at the public baths, where the Butcher…

Genuine eccentrics are a dying breed.

The Avengers 3.11: Build a Better Mousetrap
This really oughtn’t to work, seeing as it finds The Avengers flirting with youth culture, well outside its comfort zone, and more precisely with a carefree biker gang who just want to have a good time and dance to funky music in a barn all night long. Not like the squares. Not like John Steed… who promptly brings them on side and sends them off on a treasure hunt! Add a into the mix couple of dotty old dears in a windmill– maybe witches – up to who knows what, and you have very much the shape of the eccentric settings and scenarios to come.

Cynthia (Athene Seyler) and Ermyntrude (Nora Nicholson) are introduced as a butter-wouldn’t sisters who, concerned over the young bikers riding nearby, threaten that “We’ll put a spell on you”. But this amounts to misdirection in an episode that is remarkably effective in wrong-footing the audience (abetted to by Harold Goodwin’s landlord Harris: “Witches, that’s what they are. Witches”). We might have caus…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

Do you know what the hardest substance in the world is?

Flawless (2007)

The present day framing of this nifty little heist flick knocks a star off it, since it's truly lousy. Natalie Dormer is a horrendously annoying reporter interviewing a rather ropily aged Demi Moore, neither of them helped by atrocious dialogue. Back in the '60s Moore fares much better as a much passed-over aging manager in a diamond business who is tempted by Caine's cleaner into cleaning the place out. 

Caine's on good form; nothing he hasn't done a hundred times, but full of energy, and the plotting makes it as much fun to work out how he done it as it is to watch the actors. Joss Ackland is surprisingly cast against type as an evil South African while Lambert Wilson has fun as the man investigating who stole what.
***