My task for this week was to write a review of the newly released Netflix original film War Machine, starring Brad Pitt. The film has been greatly anticipated due to its star power and satirical subject matter. The streaming service has dropped quite a few new original releases in the past several months, but getting a star like Pitt to anchor a film that is released straight to Netflix, bypassing theaters and box office receipts, is a pretty good “get.” I’ve been looking forward to watching this new release ever since I watched the trailer. Pitt, a strong supporting cast, political satire that is sure to bring both laughs and a bit of a topical bite…that’s my kind of movie.
What I wasn’t expecting was a slow-moving slog that opens with what seems to be a never-ending voice over. Scoot McNairy narrates the film in his role (semi-spoiler alert) as a Rolling Stone journalist, sent to cover Glen McMahon’s (Pitt) new military strategy in Iraq. As a rule, I love Scoot McNairy. His involvement in a project is a reason to celebrate. And it’s certainly not his fault director David Michod decided to use this particular storytelling strategy. Nevertheless, the movie is weighed down by the heft of the never-ending description and discussion of McMahon, his history, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, its history, and on and on. When the voice over proceeded to introduce each and every supporting character, if I hadn’t been watching the film for the purpose of writing this review, I would have turned it off.
And, truthfully, that’s a shame. Because the second half of the movie is really quite good. What begins as nothing more than a long introduction with a campy performance by Pitt, eases into a serious discussion of colonialism around the world, the inevitable foggy optimism created by one military man’s intermingling of hope and ego, and the unintended consequences that befall the soldiers in the field after reluctantly buying into said commander’s vision and cult of personality.
The film makes a quiet yet effective political statement. The strategy behind counter-insurgency has never worked, and it never will. “You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it. You can’t build a nation at gunpoint.” However, career military men like Glen McMahon believe counter-insurgency hasn’t worked because no one has done it right. And McMahon, just as every commander before him, and surely every commander to follow, believes he is the one who can find a way to make it work. That’s why when McMahon’s advisers tell him there is no way to turn Helmond Province in Iraq, rather than walk away and admit to the reality of the situation, McMahon sees this as a challenge. He came to the Middle East to win, and believes that the unassailable powers of American ideals will allow he and his men to prevail.
Pitt plays McMahon a bit heavy-handedly, affecting a stereotypical military tough guy voice, squinting and raising an eyebrow throughout his performance. However, I admit I got used to it by about the halfway mark of the film, and was able to see past it. Pitt is in quirky-character mode, as we’ve seen in some of his most successful roles of the past, but something about this performance seems a bit too surface-level in the early stages of the film. His interactions with Meg Tilly, who plays his wife, bring in his character’s humanity, and help to make his character more relatable. Truthfully, Pitt’s McMahon may have won me over early on in the film when a TV screen airing the Fox News channel pops up on their headquarters’ monitor and he belts out the order, “Let’s lose Fox News. It won’t do us any good to have a bunch of angry perverts shouting at us all day.”
McMahon has solid intentions. He doesn’t like to “thumb-twiddle,” and is a man of action. Unfortunately, his “the boys need me” attitude and need to feel useful blurs his vision. The relationship Pitt’s character establishes with his men is an interesting exploration of leadership and military authority. Pitt’s character is flawed, overly-confident, and a bit too myopic, but you’ll find yourself rooting for him anyway. And more so, you’ll be invested in his soldiers, who are totally dedicated to him.
The film ends with a typical battle sequence, that creates tension and suspense. It’s shot and edited effectively, keeping you on the edge of your seat. But sadly, that pay off comes too late for most Netflix viewers, who will have already bailed on the film and opted to shuttle back and forth between the many other options the streaming service offers.