War Machine Review: A Film As Chaotic As The War It Examines

The very idea of war is insane. We send young people with limited life experience to fight in foreign lands, where they neither speak the language nor understand the culture, and expect what exactly? It’s often a recipe for disaster.

We mitigate this risk through leadership. Junior officers (trained to manage young troops) are assigned to platoons and companies in the field, while senior officers are charged with planning, coordinating, and directing combat operations — often at a great distance from the battlefield. It’s a system that is most effective when applied to lightning-fast assaults and aggressive apprehension of territory, but woefully ill-suited to long-term occupation, which is where we find ourselves today in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no clear end in sight.

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Unfortunately, that’s life in the modern military, particularly for infantry, engineers, medics, and other combat-facing units. Good thing we’ve got the best possible people leading our troops, right? The new Netflix film War Machine, starring Brad Pitt, suggests that maybe this system isn’t working out nearly as well as we all might hope, or expect.

War Machine is part parody and part docu-drama, contrasting the frontlines with the lines of command in Afghanistan shortly after Barack Obama is elected President in 2009. Pitt plays General Glen McMahon, a fictional character based upon now-retired General Stanley McChrystal, who was famously fired by Obama after a scathing profile appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, wherein McChrystal and his staff were depicted partying across Europe and slamming the new President and his policies.

McMahon is a career officer who’s seen it all, done it all, and has a chest-full of medals to prove it. He’s the latest in a long line of generals sent to manage the conflict in Afghanistan, expected to partner with a disengaged government in Kabul, and disenfranchised politicians in D.C. Rather than ramp-down operations, as he’s been ordered, McMahon angles to reignite hostilities through sheer force of will, when patience and intellect are far more warranted; McMahon is found lacking in both regards.

War Machine is a haphazard, and often incoherent, film. A lot of screen-time is spent exploring McMahon’s personal and professional failings; he’s a stranger to his wife (they’ve been together 30 days over the last eight years, by her accounting), and he’s dangerously out-of-steps with the political status quo in Washington, which ultimately destroys him. McMahon surrounds himself with sycophants and opportunists who behave like frat boys with a stolen corporate credit card, and their advice often leads to catastrophic decisions with life-and-death consequences.

These scenes of political and personal intrigue work well enough, but the movie falls apart when it shifts focus to the boots-on-the-ground sequences. McMahon badly wants to relate to the men he leads, but these interactions are forced, and ring false. He meets with a platoon of young Marines who’ve lost faith in their mission, and with the decision-makers responsible. McMahon fails to rally them, or even to clarify their purpose. He subsequently sends these Marines to re-take a remote Afghani region with little tactical value chosen primarily because everyone else said it could not be done.

The director, David Michôd, gets a lot right regarding the jargon, the uniforms, the equipment, and the general aesthetic of the military. Unfortunately, he fails to mesh the political, personal, and combat elements into a unified, narrative whole; the film is often trying to do too much and feels disjointed, consequently.

Pitt also gives a strange performance as McMahon, pivoting between sincerity and caricature. He plays McMahon with an accent that’s a blend of young Clint Eastwood and old John Wayne, with the mannerisms of a stroke victim. There are multiple cameos by well-known character actors portraying real-world figures like Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, which are played for comedic value, but unfortunately serve to distract rather than elevate the material.

Yet, for all its oddities and failings, War Machine is strangely compelling. The film has a lot to say about the idiocy of sending young people into battle, and the incredible excess and waste in war occurring every day just beyond the frame of CNN or Fox News. War Machine doesn’t necessarily make a case for, or against, the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, but instead illuminates the pointlessness and suffering brought about by a prolonged foreign occupation once the initial combat objectives have been achieved.

Grade: B

Are you interested in a slightly skewed and surreal examination of military leadership in Afghanistan? Would you rather not know any more than you already do? Let us know in the comments down below!

War Machine is now available for streaming on Netflix.

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David Kozlowski

David Kozlowski is a writer, podcaster, and visual artist. A U.S. Army veteran, David worked 20 years in the videogame industry and is a graduate of Arizona State University's Film and Media Studies.

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