I started this blog because the availability of Netflix allowed me to see virtually any war movie I might want to review. Although I love reviewing movies in theaters, they don’t get released very often. Most of my reviews are of older war movies. “War Machine” marks a new development in war movie viewing and reviewing. Netflix produced the movie and instead of releasing it to theaters, it opened it on its network. This would have been inconceivable a few years ago. And it did not start with the equivalent of a straight-to-DVD effort. It spent $60 million on the movie and assembled a strong cast. The film is based on the nonfiction book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings. Hastings describes his embedded experiences with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
The story takes place in Afghanistan in 2009. Things are not going well. The Taliban controls large parts of the country and the government is incompetent and corrupt. The U.S. government is looking for ways to get out of the quagmire. Into the swamp marches a new commander – Gen. Glenn McMahon (Brad Pitt). And his entourage. McMahon is a charismatic troubleshooter who is sure he can win the unwinnable war. He has a counterinsurgency plan that will do that. Unfortunately, his military strategy butts head with the civilian diplomats who are decidedly pessimistic about the situation. It is the classic war movie theme of the general versus the bureaucrats. When McMahon meets the Ambassador, he is told by the Foggy Bottom boys that he can play soldier all he wants, but he cannot ask for any more soldiers. Go ahead and do a tour of the country and create an assessment, but leave numbers out of it. McMahon meets with President Karzai (Ben Kingsley) who is a crafty buffoon who is not interested in accompanying McMahon on a tour of the country. “I have already seen the country.” McMahon’s plan has the goal of reducing civilian casualties since the war at this point is a “popularity contest” and the USA is losing. You have to convince the Afghan people that we are there to help. He has a five part counterinsurgency plan. 1. install local governments 2. protect the governments 3. train the army 4. stimulate the local economy 5. build infrastructure. Because this will take time and is boring, McMahon decides to show all the naysayers that the U.S. military can still kick-ass by targeting Taliban-dominated Helmand province. He also decides that generals can still kick diplomat-ass by calling for a 40,000 troop surge. His maladroit maneuverings to get more troops ends up getting him into hot water. He and his entourage are very naïve in their dealings with the press, including our narrator Sean Cullen (Scott McNairy) of Rolling Stone magazine. Hubris can be a bitch.
I don’t read other critics’ reviews before doing mine, but I have seen headlines that indicate criticism for the “War Machine” not being satirical enough. This is partly due to Netflix’s decision to market it as a satire. However, research of the source material proves that the movie is closer to a docudrama with some humor in it. I say this because it is a fairly straight-forward fictionalization of the actual story. All the basic elements of the McChrystal firing are covered here. And not in a satirical way. The movie is not silly and over the top like you normally see in a satire like “Dr. Strangelove”. If anything, it is sobering if you realize it is a true reflection of the situation in Afghanistan. It recreates the bombshells of Hastings’ book. I think most of the audience is probably not familiar with the story so the movie may come off as less comedic than they were expecting. In fact, the movie should be seen as an entertaining history lesson that explains the mess that Afghanistan was (and still is). It is more head-shaking than laugh out loud.
The plot makes the dubious assumption that the viewers knows the gist of what was going on in Afghanistan in 2009. If you don’t, the movie can seem to be missing some scenes to clarify the politics and the military aspects. It leans more to being a character study of McMahon and his posse. Those viewing the movie as a satire will be surprised that Pitt’s McMahon is a spot-on portrayal of McChrystal. The same can be said to a lesser degree about his entourage which Hastings described as “a hand-picked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, political operators, and outright maniacs." (The poster does a better job than the marketing campaign in synopsizing the plot.) After seeing the movie, you can’t help but feel that McChrystal was brought down less by his hubris than by his personnel choices. And he definitely was naïve in his dealings with politicians and the press.
Considering the reputation Netflix has earned from its original series, it is no surprise that “War Machine” is well made. Director David Michod is up and coming, but he sticks to conventions here. As I have said, he has not made a satire so much as a bemused look at McChrystal’s stint as the David Petraeus of Afghanistan. He uses narration by Cullen to make sure the audience gets the dovish message. Pitt is all in and plays McMahon a charismatic counterinsurgency technician. He is not a caricature. His uncomfortable scenes with his stereotypical forlorn spouse contrast with the bonhommerie of his interactions with his staff. The supporting cast is fine. Anthony Michael Hall plays his second in command Gen. Pulver (who you might be interested to know is loosely based on Michael Flynn). Topher Grace is McMahon’s press secretary who thinks he is slick, but brings Cullen (Hastings) into the frat house with disastrous results. Tilda Swinton has a cameo as a cynical German politician. The movie is not heavy on the indictment of the military in Afghanistan, but it is clear that the gutless politicians are in the right. It goes out of its way to depict the grunts as confused and irritated by the Rules of Engagement. McMahon wants to spank the enemy with "cautious restraint". That would be satirically hilarious, if it were not true. Considering his abrupt termination, I guess we’ll never know if McMahon’s plan would have worked. The movie makes it obvious that it would not have.
Should you stream it? Yes. It is a good effort by Netflix and they need to be encouraged since they are in such financial difficulty. We want to encourage them to make more Brad Pitt movies instead of Adam Sandler movies. Just don’t expect a hilarious satire of the War in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the war is a satire in itself. If you do want to watch a hilarious war satire, stream “In the Loop” on Netflix. It deals with the British government colluding with the Bush 43 administration in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. It is less semi-documentary than “War Machine”, but probably not far off the mark.
GRADE = B
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is amazingly accurate, if you believe Hastings. (If you don't want to read his book, read his Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General".) The portrayal of McChrystal is true to his nature. He did arise very early and run seven miles. He ate one meal a day and slept only four hours. He did see his wife only about one month per year. He did insist on a small, spartan room. He did have an eclectic entourage. McChrystal made a name for himself in Iraq where he was in charge of the hunt for high-level targets and insurgents in general. He was the logical choice to turn the situation in Afghanistan around. His tenure got off to a rocky start almost immediately as his goal of winning the war conflicted with the Obama administration’s desire to wind things down. He did go on an assessment tour that resulted in a 65 page report that insisted that victory through counterinsurgency was possible, but only with more troops. He did develop a bad relationship with Ambassador Elkenberry and a good one with Karzai. He felt Karzai could be worked with. He first got into political hot water when the report was leaked and he gave the interview with “60 Minutes” where he mentioned not having much contact with Obama and the need for 40,000 more men. Obama could have fired him at that point for backing him into a corner. Earlier, Obama had summoned him to Air Force One and chewed him out for criticizing Vice President Biden’s opinion that scaling down in Afghanistan was the way to go. Obama sent 30,000 more men but with the qualification that there would be a time limit of 18 months. McChrystal was enraged about this shortsightedness.
The movie accurately reflects McChrystal’s strategy. He made a sincere effort to win “hearts and minds” and reduce civilian casualties. His tightening of the Rules of Engagement did result in resentment from the veterans in the country. The movie does a good job with McMahon’s visit to a front-line unit and the dialogue reflecting the concerns of the troops. This visit actually occurred. The one combat scene serves as a summary of the flaws in McChrystal’s counterinsurgency policy. It was impossible to avoid killing the innocent when they were mingled with the bad guys. And winning the hearts and minds was exceedingly difficult when the villagers knew the Americans would leave and the Taliban return. Paying cash per casualty did not assuage hatred.