David Michôd’s War Machine is one of those movies that’s more interesting as an object than as a film — more compelling for what it represents than for what it actually is. To wit: after two years of modest indies and prestige projects, it is Netflix’s most direct attempt yet to play with the big boys, in the form of a (relatively) big-budget, commercial film, fronted by a major movie star. They lay their claim early often, opening with a Netflix logo followed by two title cards: “Netflix Presents” and “A Netflix Original Film.” (The only other opening credit is the title.)
And thus begins a verrrrrry thinly-veiled fictionalizing of Michael Hastings’s Stanley McChrystal exposé book The Operators, with Brad Pitt taking on the role of General Glen McMahon. Most of the other familiar names aren’t changed, as screenwriter/director Michôd walks us through McMahon’s tumultuous time at the center of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, though Hastings (as played by Scoot McNairy) is renamed Sean Cullen. You’d think they’d have given him more credit, since Michôd’s screenplay leans so heavily on his voice-overs; seriously, we’re talking Casino levels of voice-over. Much of it is informative, and some of it is witty (“The thing about counter-insurgency is that it doesn’t work. We tried it in Vietnam. That went well.”) But there’s so much of it, it’s less like we’re watching a movie adaptation of The Operators, and more like we’re listening to its audiobook.
What’s worse, we don’t even find out who who this narrator is until the halfway mark; for the first hour, there’s just this voice telling us who everyone is and what everything means. (McNairy first appears at a gala dinner, and the writer’s ill-fitting dress attire is one of the film’s most accurate touches.) But McNairy’s quite good, and ditto the picture’s deep bench of fine character actors: Griffin Dunne, Alan Ruck, Anthony Michael Hall, Emory Cohen. Ben Kingsley basically steals the movie, in two brief scenes, deftly underplaying as President Karzai; the great Meg Tilly, who isn’t in nearly enough movies these days, finds both the humor and poignancy in the character of McMahon’s ignored wife (the way she delivers the line “It’s really interesting, the way things happen,” with a strained but accepting smile, is perfection). And Lakeith Stanfield is flat-out terrific as a frustrated corporal at the head of a raid that goes south, in a sequence that, while piercing, seems like it’s from another movie — and, unfortunately, a better one.
But Pitt’s performance, while the marquee attraction here, is a near-fatal miscalculation. He plays McMahon as a caricature, puffing up and squnting, doing his Inglourious Basterds voice and booming proclamations like “Let’s go to Kandahar, we’ve got some fucking winning to do!” Pitt is not, by my reckoning, a bad actor, but he’s bad here; it’s a lifeless, over-rehearsed turn, for which he clearly picked out a handful of vocal and physical tics, stuck to them carefully throughout, and figured the job was done. (His one great scene is the one where he’s being purposefully artificial, feigning shock over the leak of an assessment report he leaked himself. “Woodward! Oh my god almighty!” he fumes. “Shocking! Terrible.”) He plays the part so broadly that it’s hard to feel any empathy — any emotion whatsoever, really — when the movie tries to go soft on McMahon. And, in turn, it’s hard to square that beat with his tone-deafness later, as he choppers in to that bad raid, to mouthpiece a bunch of buzzwords.
The real problem is that, in (presumably) trying to be ambiguous and complicated, the film ends up without any perspective at all on the character. Pitt seems to have figured the picture to be a Strangelove-style satire, and calibrated his performance accordingly, but no one else is working in that style — and the movie’s not all that funny (then again, political satire is a pretty tough plane to land these days). And Michôd, while a fine filmmaker, is not exactly known for his comic stylings; his previous pictures were the family-of-gangsters drama Animal Kingdom and the post-apocalyptic bruiser The Rover, neither of which was exactly a laugh riot.
All of which is to say that War Machine is a bit of a mess, though not without its virtues. But I’ll give it this: it is undeniably a movie, a big story told on a large canvas, and the fact that it’s hitting that streaming service the same day as it goes to the few theaters who aren’t terrified of it doesn’t make it any less of a movie. It lands at a moment of awkwardness for the movie industry w/r/t streaming services and the films they make, as the Cannes Film Festival literally changed their rules to keep future Netflix productions out of future competition, and jury president Pedro Almodóvar insisted, “I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen.” Jury member Will Smith took a contrary view: “Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit. [My kids] watch films they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It has broadened my children’s global cinematic comprehension.”
The service certainly has its drawbacks. As Indiewire’s David Ehrlich noted in a rather divisive editorial last month, they have a frustrating tendency to buy exciting indie films and festival favorites by the bushel and all but bury them on the crowded service; like too many tech “innovators,” they tend to treat movies as #content rather than a form of artistic expression. But for film fans who know where to look for them, they’re taking movies that would otherwise languish in festival purgatory and/or an art-house or two, and making them available in every single market, no matter how small, at the same time. That’s huge, and the terrified exhibitors who are resisting an evolution in how we take in movies will probably sound, in retrospect, as smugly delusional as the studio heads who resisted sound, home video, and pay cable.
And as for War Machine, well, it mostly serves to make one thing clear: that Netflix has just as much right to make a mediocre star vehicle as any of the traditional players.
“War Machine” streams on Netflix and opens in limited release on Friday.