A movie called “War Machine” may not sound like a workplace satire, but that’s the savviest element in David Michod’s tone-shifting character study, in which Brad Pitt plays a naive army strategist lost in the fog of a conflict with no end in sight. As U.S. General Glen McMahon, Brad Pitt plays an overconfident military man tasked with winding down the war in Afghanistan, only to get trapped by hubris and vanity that have nothing to do with the mission. His greatest enemy is the job itself.
This might sound familiar. Set in 2012 in the midst of an election campaign, “War Machine” draws from Michael Hastings’ nonfiction “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” which recounts the pileup of dysfunctions surrounding his travels with General Stanley McChrystal, whose vocal opposition to the Obama Administration’s desire to wind down the war led to his eventual dismissal.
“War Machine” culminates with the publication of the real-life Rolling Stone story that revealed McChrystal and his peers traveling around Europe in party mode while openly criticizing their government. The buildup to that moment gives Pitt the opportunity to play his macho swagger for laughs while developing a broader critique of the military’s tangled process. The movie veers from the broad doomsday satire of the “Dr. Strangelove” variety to a more subtle portrait of institutional failure, and doesn’t always succeed at modulating its tones, but it’s nevertheless a searing critique.
An ironic voiceover guides us into the general’s world, setting up a man so tough and results-oriented that no soldier seems capable of getting him to focus on the plan at hand. “Ugh, America,” we’re told, which may as well be this movie’s tagline. Tasked by the President to scale back on the presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, he instead determines that he needs to increase the figure by 40,000, and repeatedly blocks out Washington bureaucrats who tell him otherwise. Michod cuts between stiff encounters with despondent Obama officials and the sun-soaked deserts of Afghanistan, where baffled troops watch the general attempt to explain their goals.
Once again, the voiceover’s on the mark. “You can’t build a nation at gunpoint,” it concludes, just as the general concludes that you can’t do it in boring staff meetings, either. It’s a constant source of amusement to watch him attempt to derail diplomatic efforts to make progress with the President’s agenda. “Finish your phone call,” he says dryly to one coworker as he storms into his office. “The war can wait.” In another scene, he evades a screaming official in video chat by pretending the connection has cut out. The only authority he’ll consider is his own spirit of determination, and much of the entertainment value in “War Machine” revolves around watching his convictions fall apart in slow motion.
Pitt, who delivers a stern, growling variation on his cartoonish Nazi-hunting military man from “Inglorious Basterds,” doesn’t always click with a part that calls for a more credibly gruff delivery. But as the story progresses, he morphs into a softer, more melancholic mode that transforms the general into a fascinating object of pity. Along the way, Michod sketches out the general’s motley crew of likeminded hawkish types, including breezy parts for Emory Cohen, RJ Tyler, and Topher Grace (Scoot McNairy, as the mustachioed journalist Hastings, never says a word). Many of these characters fall short of being fully defined, but they’re mostly there to underscore a man who exists in a bubble of his own myth making — and how he’s driven by the desire to mount a war that ran out of gas long before he came along.
Just when that plight gets a bit tiresome — an obviously fake encounter between an off-camera Obama and the general on a runway suggests the story has run its course — Michod shifts gears. The big-picture strategy sessions receive a whole new context during a brilliant, taut shootout featuring the heroic efforts of an angry marine (Lakeith Stanfield, tough and pointed), which clarifies the disconnect between boardroom spats and lives at risk. It takes a while to get there, but this prolonged sequence brings the full scope of “War Machine” into a compelling whole.
Michod, whose previous credits include the grim Australian crime saga “Animal Kingdom” and the dystopian thriller “The Rover,” is an odd fit for this broad material: The movie’s blend of satiric ideas and their darker implications don’t always gel, and the result is caught somewhere between different modes of wartime satire, from the outrageous vulgar banter of “In the Loop” to the cruder spoofs of “Lord of War.” It builds up a lot of tangential plot points and overstuffs the ensemble with distracting bit parts for people like Tilda Swinton and Ben Kingsley (whose Afghan diplomat is further proof that his abilities as ethnic chameleon may have run their course). No matter its searing intentions, it often only cuts surface deep.
But at its best, “War Machine” crystallizes the vicious cycle of its title by revealing just how much it’s subject to the whims of routine and impatience at every turn. Michod offers a dour prognosis about the endless march of global conflict, meted out with a lopsided grin, and the sort of awkward office humor that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mike Judge movie.
Notably, “War Machine” bears less resemblance to Michod’s earlier movies than it does to the ever-expanding library of Pitt’s production company, Plan B. The movie completes a trilogy of stories about masculine hucksters attempting the game the system, fitting snugly alongside “The Big Short” and “Moneyball,” and it ends with a brilliant epilogue that brings the whole disjointed routine full circle. That’s the raison d’etre of all three movies, even as they highlight different facets of a similar hustle: All that talk of big ideas from assertive men amounts to little more than tough posturing with nothing to say.
“War Machine” is a significant project for Netflix, which continues to up its game with bigger productions even as it shows little interest giving them much theatrical life. While there’s a separate conversation worth having about whether “War Machine” deserves the big screen, its focus is well-suited for the small one. It appears to focus on an massive subject, only to reveal a much more understated approach; the general may think he’s fixated on the glories of the battlefield, but he’s actually a victim of the hapless, protean system sustaining its existence.
“War Machine” will be released on Netflix on May 26, 2017.