Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: David Michod
Written by: David Michod
(based on the book THE OPERATORS by Michael Hastings)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hayes, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Daniel Betts, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Josh Stewart & Tilda Swinton
Based on the non-fiction book THE OPERATORS, WAR MACHINE is the true-ish story of a military general’s rise and fall. Anti-war films and satire have gone together before. We’ve seen this combination in various TWILIGHT ZONE episodes and Stanley Kubrick made possibly the ultimate anti-war comedy in DR. STRANGELOVE. WAR MACHINE seems to be aiming for a satirical target, but frequently forgets the laughs and also tries to play itself up as a serious-ish drama at points too. This leads to an uneven film that’s not good and not bad, but somewhere in-between.
The war in Afghanistan has raged on for years, so the USA has sent in General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) to bring the conflict to an end. Instead of simply toning things down and readying to withdraw the troops, McMahon takes the unwinnable “war on terror” as a challenge and vows to come out with a victory. His quest for greatness leads the ego-driven military man and his colorful soldiers on a publicity-filled journey to win the war. As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go according to plan…because, well, you probably saw on the “war on terror” ended?
WAR MACHINE’s best quality comes in Brad Pitt’s performance as the determined general. At times, the film seems to almost turn into a character study of sorts and Pitt’s Mahon serves as a fascinating subject. He’s not a bad guy, not at all. His intentions are good and he wants to end his career on the noblest note possible. He just doesn’t seem to understand that he’s been thrust into a hole and keeps digging himself deeper. In certain moments, Pitt gets some chuckles in his reactions to the less-experienced higher-ups’ decisions (like having to wait for not one, but two, elections before going into combat). Furthermore, moments between McMahon and his wife provide extra effort in humanizing this character. Pitt’s McMahon, based on real-life general Stanley McChrystal, is easily one of the film’s biggest highlights.
The supporting cast is noticeably weaker as A-list actors briefly pop in for cameo-like appearances, while other actors are wasted on one-note stereotypes. There’s the geeky hacker soldier, the guy with anger issues, the one who doesn’t do much of everything, and the press guy who tries to put a positive spin on everything. Out of these four so-so characters, the only real performance of note is Topher Grace as the press relations guy and he gets occasional chuckles. Scoot McNairy plays a substitute for real-life Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, while Tilda Swinton receives one scene as an inquisitive German journalist. Ben Kingsley only has two brief scenes, the latter of which serves as one of the film’s more powerful moments as he reveals he knows his consent isn’t a big part of this war.
On a positive note, WAR MACHINE looks great. There was clearly a budget behind this project. Unfortunately, solid production values and a good leading performance can’t save the disjointed tone of the entire film. WAR MACHINE gets laughs early on, but then feels like it’s half-assing the comedic angle. As it tries to become more serious, it finds only a decent amount of success as a character study thanks to Pitt’s performances and a few good scenes showcasing the McMahon’s admirable qualities and weaknesses. The film falters when it comes to its most important aspect…being a war film. There are too many mixed bag moments before admittedly effective later scenes, so the final message feels disingenuous.
In watching WAR MACHINE’s tepid attempts at humor and not-quite-earned final message, I couldn’t help but wonder why David Michod didn’t just make a drama about a troubled general in the final days of the Afghanistan war. There are a few good laughs early on and great bits of drama that arrive in the second half, but the rest of the film feels confused and unsure of itself. Brad Pitt’s performance is a plus and I don’t consider WAR MACHINE to be a bad film at all. It’s just very messy and completely scattershot. It’s confused and unfocused, kind of like the “war on terror.” You can’t win a war against a concept and you can’t make a proper anti-war film without clear focus from the beginning. WAR MACHINE is just okay. If you need a two-hour time killer and like war movies (or Brad Pitt), this might do something for you.