Director: David Michod
Starring: Brad Pitt
I'll give War Machine this much: it doesn't give in to the temptation to play "Fortunate Son" at any point during its running time, even at the end when you can practically hear the opening guitar riff start in your head. In just about every other respect David Michod's film aligns with pretty much every other movie ever made about the War on Terror (the exception being the great The Hurt Locker), pointing out the follies and the hubris that have already been examined and dissected ad nauseam, offering nothing new in terms of insight, and resorting to glibness whenever it can think of nothing else to do. War Machine aims for satire but, like the conduct of the wars themselves, confuses having a mandate with having the means to fully and successfully achieve the goal. And, yes, Brad Pitt is going to make that face through the whole movie and, yes, sometimes that is pretty distracting.
The story of War Machine is one being recounted by a character who won't be seen until about half-way through the film and is at that point revealed to be a reporter for Rolling Stone (Scoot McNairy) who has been allowed access to the inner circle of General McMahon (Pitt), whose success in Iraq has resulted in him being given the task of "winning" Afghanistan (the film is based on Michael Hastings' book The Operators, which was itself a follow up to a story Hastings wrote for Rolling Stone). As played by Pitt, McMahon is at once a man possessed of a keen intelligence and of a short-sightedness that ensures that he can't truly see the problem in front of him for what it is. He understands how to conduct war - that he's good at being a military leader is something the film never questions - but he can't seem to grasp, or perhaps accept, that his task in Afghanistan is impossible within the parameters of "victory" as he understands it. This isn't an old school war, but he wants to treat it as if it is and can't move beyond that rigid line of thought. When faced with a group of Marines who have been stationed in a territory that has proven especially hostile and impossible to secure, one of whom breaks down and tells him that he's confused by the situation because there's no way to distinguish between an insurgent and an ordinary person and because the message being sent down from on high is that "restraint" (meaning not shooting people) is more important than removing the threat posed by insurgents, all McMahon can do is tell him to "get unconfused."
But confusion is woven into the very fabric of the occupation of Afghanistan, which is built around contradictory and self-serving ideas. When he arrives in Afghanistan, McMahon takes a tour to get the lay of the land and talk to locals to try to gain an understanding of their feelings towards the US presence. He's taken to a field where poppies are grown to make heroin, his guide shrugging that the US isn't shutting it down because there's no other local industry to stimulate and sustain the economy. When he suggests that the field could be used to grow something else, like cotton, he's told that the US government won't allow the fields to be used to grow cotton because the market would then be in competition with the US' own cotton market. The effect is that the military is there ostensibly to extend a hand to pull Afghanistan up into democracy, even as the political powers behind those militaries are pushing Afghanistan back down to eliminate the potential of economic competition. Tasked with making the country secure enough that democracy can be allowed to take root, but also to remain too economically dependent to enjoy true self-determination, McMahon is set up to fail and the harder he tries to break through what he sees as the willingness of the powers that be to settle for a draw rather than go for a win, the faster he fails.
There's a circularity to War Machine that, in itself, almost qualifies as a statement about the myopic but entrenched attitude towards the war, with McMahon being brought to Afghanistan to finish what his predecessor could not, only to fail in the exact way his predecessor did and be replaced himself by a man who, judging by our brief glimpse of him, is going to fail in the same way as McMahon. It's a mindset problem, but rather than change the approach, the powers that be are simply changing the guy and throwing good Generals after bad. In that sense McMahon is almost a tragic figure, as his identity is completely tied to his professional success but it's those qualities which define him as a General that will lead to his downfall, but War Machine is ultimately too shallow to attain that kind of gravitas. It comes close when McMahon visits with his wife (Meg Tilly) and is so stiff and formal with her, so incapable of relating to her person to person, as to suggest a man who will be entirely lost once he retires, but these moments are fleeting.
War Machine is pitched at the level of satire, but it's neither clever nor original enough to achieve that aim. It has nothing to say about the war in Afghanistan that hasn't already been said so many times that it's become almost meaningless, and Michod's grasp of how to bring the comedic elements to the forefront is somewhat lacking (he's best known for the crime drama Animal Kingdom and the post-societal collapse thriller The Rover, neither of which is known for its comedy). There are some funny individual moments, such as Pitt's reaction to the locals' complaint about soldiers using the term "motherfucker," but there's no sustained comedic energy to buoy the story and as a result it just falls flat.