The new Netflix original film War Machine begins eight years into the grinding, seemingly unwinnable Afghanistan War. President Obama sends General Glen McMahon there to assess what would be required to make measurable progress. Winning isn’t really something you talk about that many years into a military conflict.
Brad Pitt’s McMahon is a 21st-century Gen. George Patton who talks in raspy grunts and has more physical tics—heavy gait, grimaced face, hands tensed into perma-claws—than Forrest Gump with a mild case of Tourette’s. The film follows his tour of the country as he talks to Afghan leaders and civilians, U.S. allies and troops. He has a hyper-inflated sense of his own military skills and the deference owed to him as a decorated bigwig, but he’s also a fact-based operator who actually listens to what people are telling him.
Rather than approach the character with hubristic, flag-waving self assurance, Pitt plays him as a realist with boundless ambition. There’s plenty of hubris, but it’s not the topnote and doesn’t rose-tint his skills at gathering intel or judgment. (Not at first, anyway.) Gen. McMahon understands that war isn’t hell—it’s chaos—and that this war has been stuck in neutral long enough to look like Vietnam, but he’s like the last line of defense at the Alamo. We’ll only know the war is unwinnable if he tries and fails. Is he a smooth operator who puts on the grizzled persona to get the military support he needs from the civilian leadership at the Department of Defense? Or is he just really that gruff?
Gen. McMahon wants to win. First in Helmand Province, a strategically inessential and supposedly unwinnable region controlled by the Taliban. Then in the expectations game that Washington played for the first near-decade of the Afghanistan War. The initial signs that winning will be more than a matter of a better strategy comes fairly early in Gen. McMahon’s tour of Afghanistan. He encounters a group coming back from a short leave to Italy. They don’t look rested or happy to be there, and Gen. McMahon asks why the long faces.
“I can’t tell the difference between the people and the enemy,” a Marine, played with earnest pain by Keith Stanfield, tells him. “They all look alike to me. I’m pretty sure they’re the same people, sir.”
As far as Washington is concerned, Gen. McMahon’s job is to carry the ball two more yards down a field that has no endzone.
When Gen. McMahon explains that their job is to protect—not kill—the Afghan people, the Marine is the first to dent the general’s armor of self-assurance.
“It seems to me that we’re all here with our guns and shit, trying to convince these people that deep down we’re actually really nice guys. I don’t know how to do that when every second one of them or every third one of them or every tenth one of them is trying to kill me, sir, because I’m a Marine.”
War Machine is less a film about war than about the people that try to control it. Presidents necessarily make decisions with political considerations in mind. Namely, no president wants to be the one who declares a war unwinnable. If that was the case, our soldiers will have died in vain. Or at least that’s what the other party will say in the next election. As far as Washington is concerned, Gen. McMahon’s job is to carry the ball two more yards down a field that has no endzone.
Australian filmmaker David Michôd, who wrote and directed War Machine, said today on The Ringer’s Channel 33 podcast that most war movies today are “strangely cloistered little movies about the honor or the trauma” of war. He was more interested, he said, in making a film about the decision-making that perpetuates it. “It was always important to me that the movie ultimately become about the horror and sadness of war, but it needed to be about something else too. It needed to be a movie that … scrutinized the architects of that horror and sadness.”
Those architects are all around. War Machine is based on Michael Hastings’ 2010 Rolling Stone article and 2012 book The Operators about the month he spent with Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Hastings’ book got McChrystal fired for insubordination for the negative comments that he and his underlings made about President Obama’s support for the war. Those underlings were architects too—sycophants and yes-men who assured McChrystal that he was the guy who could fix Afghanistan.
I’m a fan of Pitt’s schtick-ier performances in Snatch, Burn After Reading, Ocean’s Eleven and Inglorious Basterds, but he’s too schtick-y in War Machine. Pitt drops his voice an octave and talks like a high school football coach in a Key and Peele sketch. He puts on running shorts and jogs around the inside of the base with a spread-legged, lumbering gate that’s genuinely funny and would have been a great bit for a different sort of movie.
Netflix is marketing the film as a satire, but it’s not as assured or absurd as films like Dr. Strangelove or Wag the Dog. War Machine is pretty close to the mark from my recollections of Hastings’ depiction of McCrystal and the Afghanistan War in Rolling Stone. Pitt’s scenes with Ben Kingsley as an awkward, drugged-out Hamid Karzai are stingingly funny, but he saps the film of its gravity at other points where it wants to be more serious.
War is crazy, but it’s not that kind of crazy.