In order to fully appreciate how great Brad Pitt and David Michôd’s new Netflix original movie, War Machine, is, you first have to understand this project’s degree of difficulty. In the first place, it’s a movie adaptation of a narrative non-fiction book (Michael Hastings’ The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War on Afghanistan). One need only see the filmic incarnations of Unbroken, Lost City Of Z, The Blind Side, Moneyball, et al to grasp how hard that is to pull off. It’s also a screwball comedy set in a Middle Eastern war zone, which not even Bill Murray (Rock the Kasbah) could make work.
There were other reasons to be worried. The producers — Brad Pitt’s Plan B productions with writer/director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover) — inexplicably decided to change the book’s name to War Machine, which it shares with both a major Avengers character and a former mixed martial artist currently on trial for rape and attempted murder. It also name-swapped its subject, General Stanley McChrystal, to “Glen ‘The Glenimal’ McMahon,” played by Brad Pitt in what looks in the trailers to be some squinty, grey-haired riff on Inglourious Basterds‘ Aldo Raine. This was especially worrisome, because the last thing we need is defanged satire, a story about the US’s adventure in Afghanistan removed of the discomfort and responsibility the author intended. Hollywood, it should be noted, does not have a great track record in this regard.
But Michôd and Pitt have pulled off something rare and wonderful. Michôd has such a clear vision of what his story is really all about that he can fudge a few identifying details without lessening the impact. If calling Stan “Glen,” if having him be the guy who killed Al-Zawahiri instead of Al-Zarqawi, if having him be a graduate at Yale rather than a fellow at Harvard, allows this movie to be made without getting tied up in the courts, so be it. And for the record, much of War Machine‘s depiction of McMahon, from his fetish for distance running, to the fact that he only eats one meal a day, to his jokes about beating Lady Gaga to the Rolling Stone cover, all come directly from The Operators‘ real-life account of McChrystal.