By 2009, the War in Afghanistan had ground to a halt. America desperately needed to win the war, so they fired the old general and sent in a new one: Stanley McChrystal. After a series of P.R. blunders, McChrystal himself was fired. War Machine, Netflix’ latest Original, is a fictionalised account of McChrystal’s fall from grace, based on Michael Hastings’ book The Operators.
Stanley McChrystal is transformed into Brad Pitt’s Glen McMahon. It’s quite a coup for Netflix to bag an actor of Pitt’s calibre, having been stuck with the increasingly irritating Adam Sandler for so long. Pitt’s performance is an strange one. He walks around with a bow-legged, almost chimp-like gait, and affects a gallery of facial tics that threaten to push him overboard into caricature. And his voice put me in mind of nothing more than the sugar water-drinking bug alien from Men in Black.
There’s a sense, in Pitt’s McMahon, of Joseph Heller’s exhaustive characterisations in his brilliant Catch-22, the pages long lists of attributes and foibles that make up the likes of Colonel Cathcart. The comparison to Heller’s WWII satire is a fitting one, given that War Machine occupies a similar space: out of touch commanders tangled in bureaucracy and sending their troops into a war they don’t understand. It is not, however, a flattering comparison. Catch-22 is full of paradoxes, circular logic and double binds. War Machine can’t muster anything as cerebral as those, instead just presenting us with a blundering general who squints a lot.
Much of War Machine’s exposition is given to us through a voice-over whose attempted snappy pithiness brings to mind the film’s closest contemporary, The Big Short. War Machine very clearly wants to be The Big Short for the War in Afghanistan. The problem is, The Big Short depicted the most insane, stupid, greedy behaviour humans have ever engaged in. War Machine just has a four-star general and his staff mishandling a war. Stupid? Yes. Deadly? Of course. But War Machine so desperately wants its story and characters to be unimaginably crazy, you-couldn’t-make-this-up material, when compared to The Big Short, they’re just kinda tame.
There are some positives here. The supporting cast puts up a good show, especially the always engaging John Magaro, and Aymen Hamdouchi as McMahon’s earnest Afghan aide-de-camp. A late scene of McMahon having an anniversary dinner with his wife is as close as the film comes to genuine characterisation. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis turn in an otherworldly score that would have helped underscore the preposterous events had they been preposterous enough. In the end, though, that’s War Machine’s problem: it isn’t preposterous enough.