War Machine has a lot going for it, including a stellar performance by Brad Pitt and an insider’s view of military life in the Middle East that rings all too true (at least to an armchair observer like me). In adapting the late Michael Hastings’ whistle-blowing book The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan writer-director David Michôd has drawn on his own experience as a journalist to good effect. (He made a bold and successful career change with the Aussie crime-family drama Animal Kingdom.)
It’s too bad that a handful of flaws work against War Machine’s complete success. It opens with a glut of narration—rarely a good idea, especially here because we can’t see or identify with the narrator, who turns out to be a Rolling Stone reporter covering the story. Then we meet the film’s bullish protagonist, a four-star general (Pitt) who comes to Afghanistan with an idealistic agenda and a determination to win. Winning means everything to this career soldier, who ought to know by this time that dealing with politicians (on both sides of the conflict) make it impossible for him to maneuver as he might like.
This phase of the film, which abounds in absurdist humor, is especially good. Pitt excels playing a supremely confident man unlike any we’ve seen him try before. There’s nothing sly or ironic about this general, who is clearly inspired by the real-life Stanley McChrystal, the man who was brought down by the revelations in that Rolling Stone article.
But much as war is a prime target for satire, it is also serious business, and that’s where War Machine runs aground. Its tonal shift doesn’t go down easily, and good actors can’t salvage an imperfect screenplay. The ensemble is well-chosen, and led by such solid actors as Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Anthony Hayes, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Alan Ruck, and Meg Tilly, with brief but memorable cameos by Tilda Swinton and Ben Kingsley.
I give points to filmmaker Michôd for capturing the essence of this story so well, and to Pitt—not only for his performance but for backing the film through his socially-conscious Plan B production company. War Machine is certainly worth seeing, but it doesn’t score the direct hit I was hoping for.