It’s surprising that this bold, ambitious American military satire was David Michôd’s next move after Animal Kingdom and The Rover, two very serious films set within his native Australia, but there’s always a sense of excitement when an acclaimed, non-American director hotfoots it to the The Home Of The Brave And The Land Of We’re Making A Goddamn Motherfucking Movie Here, People for the first time. War Machine – essentially a Brad Pitt vehicle, but not without notable supporting performances – is a Netflix release, written and directed by Michôd, and as such in 2017 this means that he’s working with a much bigger budget than he has dealt with before. Pitt plays General Glen McMahon, a successful career soldier who performed beyond expectation during the second Iraq War and who, at the start of the film, arrives in Kabul with the remit of bringing the Afghanistan War to an end in whatever way he sees fit. The character is based on General Stanley McChrystal, who in real life was eventually brought down not by the Taleban, but by something much closer to home: a damning Rolling Stone article. The same fate befalls Pitt’s McMahon (who has a claw-like hand, a bizarre upright jogging style and numerous facial tics), though not before he has tried to do what he considers to be the right thing, bringing in his own team – which actually includes an Afghan man, something his predecessors hadn’t considered doing – and travelling around the country (and further afield) speaking to troops and village elders in search of a solution. The film has some laughs at his expense as he fights against the hopelessness of it all, battling journalists, disillusioned soldiers, foreign politicians and a scheming American ambassador, all of whom seem to divert his time and attention away from the matter at hand. As this plays out the actor’s performance is risibly over-the-top (though seemingly restrained when he’s acting alongside Ben Kingsley, who orders double-scenery-with-large-fries as President Karzai), and the physical silliness Pitt employs ensures that McMahon remains a ridiculous figure for much of the film, yet you can’t help but feel sorry for him at times as his government and others cast him adrift. That’s indicative of the movie’s main problem: strange shifts in tone occur constantly… one minute you’re supposed to be laughing at McMahon’s buffoonery, the next you’re supposed to sympathise with his plight, and it switches around far too regularly.
Sadly War Machine misses the mark far more often than it hits it, and its jarring u-turns with regard to the prevailing mood are not just confined to the treatment of the main character; for example there’s a whole ‘realistic’, tense battle section here featuring LaKeith Stanfield as a Corporal engaging with the Taleban on the ground, with tragic results, which is employed to remind us of the seriousness of the situation but which seems completely at odds with the rest of the material. Perhaps the writer-director is trying to shock the audience out of a complacent state, or perhaps he lost his satirical nerve, but the fact is this movie is better when it sticks to lampooning military personnel, especially McMahon and his ridiculous inner circle of yes men and alphas, and Pitt’s best work comes when he’s exploring the General’s uneasy personal relationships and awkward conflicts with shrewd political operators. Within that part of the film you’ve got some good supporting performances by the likes of Meg Tilly, Anthony Michael Hall and Alan Ruck, but the rest of it is a bit of a mess. For all its faults, though, at least Michôd and Pitt have created a memorable, imperfect lead character. (**)