Political satire is a tough thing to get right. A target as fresh and confusing as the war in Afghanistan is even more daunting. How do you communicate the seriousness of human lives lost and the absurdity of political and military bureaucracy, while portraying the muddled, often tragic nature of the action on the ground?
This is the internal conflict that the new Netflix film War Machine struggles with and ultimately fails to tackle effectively. Director David Michôd’s satire, inspired by the rise and fall of General Stanley McChrystal, aspires to the absurdist heights of films like In the Loop, and the casually sarcastic, pop-explanation rage of The Big Short (its closest stylistic predecessor, also produced by War Machine star and producer Brad Pitt). Perhaps befitting of its subject matter, the movie suffers from a tonal disjointedness that never resolves itself.
Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon, a fictionalized version of the real-life McChrystal, who oversaw military operations in Afghanistan from 2009 until 2010 when a humiliating profile by Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings effectively ended McChrystal’s career. In the film, McMahon is a popular, successful military commander, whose victories are attributed to his can-do attitude and commitment to patriotic ideals. He believes American-led counterinsurgencies in Afghanistan have failed not because they don’t work, but because previous leaders just weren’t trying hard enough.
McMahon thinks the war is still winnable, but runs into constant resistance both from Afghan leadership in the form of president Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), and from U.S. leadership, who simply want McMahon to clean up as much of the mess as he can. McMahon also has trouble with the troops, who struggle to tell the difference between civilian allies and insurgents. A damning story on him from a reporter finally puts the kibosh on his efforts.
The biggest issue War Machine faces is that satire seems to be the wrong track for the movie to take. War and soldiers are difficult subjects to make funny. The best that writer-director Michôd can manage is to provide the stars — like Pitt and his military cohort — with a couple of strange quirks to color their performances. Sometimes these characterizations feel lazy, other times like the actors are trying too hard. The humor, when it’s there, feels forced.
Much more effective are the battle scenes in the movie’s last third where McMahon sends marines to control a province he’s been told is uncontrollable. It ends tragically. During the main raid scene, the tension is palpable. Michôd effectively communicates the confusion and frustration of trying to locate the source of enemy fire and the conflict between orders to avoid violence when possible. Scenes like these are much more akin to something like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, and it’s easy to wonder what the rest of the movie would have looked like had it followed that example.
In War Machine’s final scene, fictionalized Michael Hastings stand-in Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) reflects in a voiceover the lack of collective soul-searching in the wake of McMahon’s failure. He’s revealing the true aim of the movie — what does McMahon’s (and by extension, McChrystal’s) epic failure say about America? Unfortunately, War Machine is too busy figuring out how to say what it wants to say that it can’t really offer any answers, just more questions that have more to do with the film’s own failure than with the war it’s trying to portray.