War Machine was an important movie for Netflix, in a way, whether we (the audience) liked it or not. The biggest streaming company in the world got one of the biggest movie stars in the world to appear in a Netflix Original movie. Not since his cameo as Will Colbert on Friends back in 2001 have we not at least had the option of watching a Brad Pitt performance on the silver screen. (Oh the times they are a changin’.) The Problem is, that so far… they haven’t changed for the good.
In some ways, War Machine should have been a hit. Both Dir. David Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) and Brad have solid track records as artists. But in this movie, despite Brad having been interested in the project for some time, they didn’t really have the script or the unity of vision to make it work. The fact that this film bounced around the studios for a while, before Brad eventually took it to Netflix, is indicative to the ambling nature of the script. As well as perhaps the studios apprehensions with Brad playing this kind of leading role. And that’s concerning: Because by financing this movie, it very much feels as if Netflix agreed to make a $60m Brad Pitt, play thing as a borderline trade-off for working with the star.
The problem with making a movie about a war that doesn’t end, is that it lacks the dramatic tension of an impending resolution. War Machine suffers as a movie because it lacks an engine to drive the plot forward in any meaningful way. Unfortunately this is only compounded by following a group of characters we’re positioned to root against from the get go. The Narrator tells us, early on, that we should expect these buffoons to fail and while the film manufactures a little tension at times, the stakes never get to a place where the audience genuinely cares about any of the characters at all.
In fact, it seems like David Michod was really confused about exactly what film he was trying to make. Was it an over-the-top satire, based on the failed career of American four-star general Stanley McChrystal? An expose on the politics of the Afghan war? Or a gritty film about life on the front line in Afghanistan? The latter two themes feel like they belong in the same movie, but the former (especially when the parody is only being played out by one character) does not.
This begs the question: What was Brad Pitt thinking in his portrayal of Glen McMahon? Brad’s pseudo McChrystal character, (McMahon) came across like a mixture of Popeye and The Rock, with his cartoonish raised eyebrow and permanently confused face. His overly affected voice, and overtly tense hands and jaw, capped off a kind of mash-up of Brad’s favourite character tics and affectations. In a recent interview, Michod said he wanted to make a satire that contrasted the circus at the top of the military with the horror show happening below. However, because the film’s combat scenes seem so interchangeable with any modern war film, the result is Brad Pitt looking like the only actor who was told it was a satire. Perhaps if Michod’s war scenes leant more stylistically into the horror genre and were blended with the comedy in a similar style to ‘Get Out’, the two tones would have worked together. But as it stands they almost certainly did not.
The other option of course would have been to get Brad, a successful dramatic actor, to play a more measured, psychologically motivated version of the role. One that reveals McChrystal’s extreme hubris, rather than sign posting it, while also being a little less judgmental of the character. Despite the exaggeration, Pitt does capture something of McChrystal in his physicality, from his strangely disembodied, robot like movements, to his oft furrowed brow. The only difference is Brad’s looks of confusion seem to be an attempt to indicate a lack of intelligence, whereas if you watch McChrystal closely, particularly in his interactions with media, his looks of confusion aren’t through one eye, they’re square on, and they almost always seem to be apologetically saying “you’re the idiot” to the person opposite him and not the other way around.
It’s a testament to Brad that despite being fiendishly miscast and strangely directed, his performance wasn’t all bad. The most I hope to come out of this movie is that Brad realises to occasionally go back and do what he does best, which is play Brad Pitt. Fight Club, Moneyball, Oceans Eleven and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are all examples of movies where Brad more or less plays himself. The result is that they’re also some of his best. As for Netflix, the moral here is clear: Don’t let your appetite for bringing big names to the platform hold hostage your ability to choose good scripts. By refocusing on good scripts and good characters in their original movies, (even from lesser known filmmakers) Netflix should be able to generate awards buzz, and with the awards, the stars will come.
To hear me and my co-host Matt Lausch have loads of fun breaking down War Machine from as many strange perspectives as possible, listen to the latest episode of our podcast: Netflix and Grill, currently streaming on SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.