War Machine review: Brad Pitt struggles to make his character McMahon more than a caricature
War Machine asks what is the endgame in counterinsurgency and do the self-appointed custodians of “rescued” countries (the Americans and their European partners) have any real clue of ground realities?
War Machine, a Netflix Original film, which premieres on May 26, is produced by and stars Brad Pitt.
Pitt is a bit bow-legged and quite comic as General Glen McMahon, the passionate four-star general trying to make an impact on an unwinnable war. There is a war being fought in Afghanistan and then there are the administrators in Washington who have different priorities. Predominantly satirical and at times just plain silly, War Machine asks what is the endgame in counterinsurgency and do the self-appointed custodians of “rescued” countries (the Americans and their European partners) have any real clue of ground realities?
Writer-director David Michod’s original script is loosely based on the book ‘The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War on Afghanistan’, by journalist Michael Hastings. Michod’s story of McMahon is recounted via a voiceover.
These are passages from an interview in Rolling Stones magazine written after the journalist shadowed McMahon and his inner coterie around Afghanistan and through Europe. McMahon’s A-team of officers includes Greg (Anthony Michael Hall), Andy (RJ Cyler), Matt (Topher Grace), Afghan aide-de-camp Badi (Aymen Hamdouchi) and Cory (John Magaro) who are fiercely loyal to general ‘Glenimal’.
McMahon’s life lessons include this one: A good leader follows the rules; a great leader knows how to break them.
Unfortunately McMahon’s methods and vocal disregard for the Presidency, which calls for a troop pull-out, results in his fall from grace. Pitt squanders an opportunity to make McMahon more than a caricature. His contorted face and awkward running style diverting from the potential of owning the part of a decorated officer driven by personal ambition. Ben Kingsley is hammy, but fun as the bashful Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, quietly aware of his figurehead position.
The best performances come from the film’s two women characters. Meg Tilly keeps it real as the long-suffering wife of a devoted army man. It’s touching indeed when she says she has calculated that over his eight years of tours, the husband and wife have spent only 30 days together every year. And Tilda Swinton impresses in her one scene as a righteous German politician.
The last half hour, reminiscent of the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, includes a tense segment where a young, inexperienced squad faces enemy fire — another great opportunity to touch a nerve; another misfire. What’s notable though is the cinematic scale, production values, talents and detailing invested into a small screen event.
In the gamut of war-themed films, there’s also Ang Lee’s 2016 war drama Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, which touches on the futility of war and the chasm between the armed forces, public perception and media hype. However the 122-minute War Machine lands somewhere closer to the 2016 passable black comedy War Dogs.
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