‘War Dogs,’ The Scumbag Cinema Of Todd Phillips, And The Oppressive Amorality Of The Aughts

In War Dogs, scumbag whisperer Todd Phillips creates a vivid portrait of a particular era — the early aughts, which also happens to be the era that made him famous, for directing movies like Road Trip (2000), Old School (2003), and The Hangover (2009). He attempts to get at the id of the George W. Bush era, and for the first time since he’s been a sought-after director, to do it in something other than the form of a light, commercial comedy.

Phillips is a multiplex director with an obsessiveness fit for the arthouse. Phillips’ obsession? Men behaving boorishly (mostly white, mostly upper middle class men behaving boorishly, specifically). His output has ranged from the near-classic (Road Trip, Old School) to the nearly unwatchable (The Hangover Part III remains one of the worst movies I’ve ever sat through). But his choice of subject matter has remained remarkably consistent, especially for someone so openly commercial. You normally see his kind of specialization only in academics, at film festivals, among directors who like to project an image, to make their obsessions part of their persona. Not directors who cameo as the “Here for the gangbang” guy from Old School.

Yet from his early documentaries about GG Allin and Frat House (a documentary Phillips co-directed about beyond-the-pale hazing at a SUNY fraternity that depicted Phillips himself being threatened by one of his particularly aggro subjects) through the Hangover movies to now, Todd Phillips has dealt almost exclusively in male misbehavior narratives. Of course, that depiction hasn’t always been especially introspective. What’s varied most from film to film is how much of a happy face he’s chosen to paint on it — whether he’s framed male shittiness as cheeky hijinks, like in Old School, or as dark aberration, like in Frat House.

The market clearly rewards films that tell us “boys will be boys” more than it does films that tell us we might have a problem. It’s been interesting watching Phillips try to navigate that throughout his career, as a guy who at least seems to recognize both sides, the entertainment value and the societal ill. He got crushed, critically, for The Hangover Part II, largely for emphasizing the darkness that had always underpinned The Hangover, had anyone actually been paying attention (…and for lots of other problems, which is why I won’t be defending here). I’ve often gotten the sense that while Phillips understands that a lot of his characters are supposed to be jerks, a large part of his audience, critics, and studios — don’t.

The difficulty of boorish dick narratives is that there’s always a somewhat cathartic, escapist quality to watching film characters discard societal norms, even as they engage in indefensible behavior. I have no problem delighting in the amoral, but it can be hard to feel too good watching a film that says, in essence “Wouldn’t it be great if white guys could act like total pieces of shit all the time with almost no consequences?” Especially when that’s such a frequent storyline†. You could make a case that that’s why Phillips has been less successful (artistically, at least) since 2010 or so. There was a certain moral reckoning that came with the financial crisis.

Characters with a reduced capacity for shame, guilt, morality, and remorse are compelling, and as always, depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. But how often is that totally lost on half the audience? To put it in more concrete terms, how many dipshits idolize Gordon Gekko and simply choose to ignore the part of the story where he’s the villain? Doesn’t knowing that make it a little harder to enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street? Which, though it’s a probably a better movie, like Wall Street, also has a lot of memorable debauchery and an arguably less-memorable satirical “point.”

The classic example of missing the forest for the trees/ignoring the social commentary for the wealth porn is of course Scarface, which depicted a tacky hoodlum in a loveless relationship with a trophy mistress who dies in a hail of bullets. But generations of dipshits nonetheless mistook the character as a sort of Warren Buffet for strivers. Who thought “First chu getta money, then chu getta power” and “I always tell the truth even when I lie” were actually sound pieces of business advice. (Tony Montana’s most poignant social commentary? “You know what capitalism is? Getting f*cked!”).

My friend Joe used to work for Trump University, where his job was essentially to call people, find out how much money they had, and get them to spend it on probably worthless Trump University classes. How much Trump University costed depended largely on how much money they thought you had. His managers there constantly played Ben Affleck’s boardroom scene from Boiler Room (itself an homage to Alec Baldwin’s in Glengarry Glen Ross) as a pump-up jam. Whenever he tried to point out that the entire point of the movie was mocking that way of thinking, he was met with blank stares. I’ve had friends who worked at Merrill Lynch describe much the same thing. In case you doubt any of my personal anecdotes, here’s a post on “The Sales Side: A Community for Salespeople” openly painting the scene as aspirational, a speech that will get you “pumped up to sell!”

For a certain segment of the population, we’re constantly bombarded with this message of “Be a dick or be a loser forever,” especially in the early, impressionable stage of our working lives, just when we’re trying to figure out where we fit inside a system that feels simultaneously like it doesn’t want us and needs us for cannon fodder. I know, I know, world’s smallest violin just for us poor, oppressed white bros and all of that, but the point is that the stakes of misinterpreting this messaging aren’t necessarily life or death, but becoming a piece of shit or not.

War Dogs is about that fork in the road, with being able to see yourself as a good person, albeit one stuck in a “loser” job with a crappy car (always the crappy car) on one side, and maybe becoming a successful piece of shit with lots of cool toys and trophy women on the other.

Based on Arms and the Dudes, a Rolling Stone article written by Guy Lawson (and later expanded into a book), War Dogs stars Miles Teller as David Packouz, the kid facing that choice. Packouz is the proverbial college dropout, driving his crappy car around South Florida from appointment to appointment, where he works as a massage therapist for rich guys living in gated communities who are only medium subtle about wanting to be jerked off. In the first scene, a Packouz client deliberately lets his towel fall off his naked buttocks before offering the most half hearted of winking apologies. “Oops,” he says, smirking.

“That’s okay, Mr. Henderson,” Packouz sighs, putting the towel back on him. Poor guy, he’s so beaten down by his crappy life that he can’t even muster gay panic. (I kid, I actually really liked this moment. It felt authentic. In just a few seconds it communicated “No, I’m not going to jerk you off, but I understand why you’d think that, and it’s okay.”)

After a chance meeting at a funeral with childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), Packouz gets sucked into the shady world of arms dealing. Specifically, dealing arms to the U.S. government. Turns out, as Diveroli explains in eye-catching montage, in the aftermath of Halliburton and no-bid contract scandals, the US government put up a public website in which anyone could bid on defense contracts. War Dogs is more vague with exactly how Diveroli makes his money than I wish it would be, but the gist of it is that he sources discount weapons and then sells them to the government at a mark up. There’s a great infographic showing all the pieces of equipment soldiers carry, such that, for guys like Diveroli, each US soldier represents $17,000+ worth of gear.

It’s fitting (not to mention true) that War Dogs takes place in the aughts, a time when the choice between principled poverty and being a rich sh*thead seemed especially stark. Remember those mortgage broker assholes in The Big Short? I knew assholes like that, looking like real adults doing jobs I didn’t understand, while I was barely scraping by, defaulting on student loans while fancying myself some kind of educated intellectual. There was so much free money floating around at the time that it seemed like all you had to do was bend your principles a little bit to get some of it, strongarm a few people into bad deals, or whatever. Maybe that was just how the world worked! Maybe all that overachiever stuff they’d sold us in school had been a lie!

The reason The Big Short was so fun was that it was structured in such a way that you got to root against those Boiler Room assholes. Even in the midst of a story that everyone at some level knows will end with a worldwide financial crisis — an event that put a decent portion of the audience out of work — the simple joy of watching scumbags get their just desserts kept it from being a downer. It was an uplifting underdog story. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the early aughts and the early 20-teens (I’m truly sorry we don’t have better words for these eras).

War Dogs doesn’t have that luxury. Diveroli’s character is clearly meant to represent that dark side, the world of the scumbag, and War Dogs doesn’t equivocate when addressing the kind of misread pop culture messaging that helps create such a character. Not with Diveroli’s massive office poster of Tony Montana and constant Scarface quoting. They do coke and shoot machine guns, because doing coke and shooting machine guns looks really cool! (And let’s be honest, it does, just ask Stitches)

Diveroli’s actual business model, however, is trickier. Thus, so is the question of how much we should be rooting for him. Diveroli makes money not by slinging penny stocks to “whales” or sticking immigrants with crappy mortgages, but by cutting corners on government arms contracts. Which raises the question: If you’re stealing from a corrupt military-industrial complex (and not even stealing, per se), does that make you a villain or an anti-hero? Should you feel bad about taking money from the Halliburtons of the world? At one point, when the boys realize they’ve underbid a government contract, Teller’s Packouz says (via voiceover) “Turns out, the American taxpayers might actually be getting a good deal this time.”

Okay, but what if undercutting Northrup Grumman means, say, the Afghan police are rolling around with defective ammo? They’re not exactly fleecing widows, but neither are they selling dud shells to Hitler. As Diveroli sells it, “There’s no political issue here, unless you’re anti-money.”

And in that, War Dogs is a brilliant portrait of the oppressive nihilism of the Bush era, when the overarching amorality of the economy made “F*ck everyone and get the money” almost seem like the only rational response. Plenty of people will probably hate War Dogs, fairly, on account of it’s not the most fun era to relive. In another fitting (and again, true) touch, it all takes place in Florida. Florida, the place, that shaped the aughts, the time (remember the recount?), which basically turned out to be the Florida of decades.

Historical context aside, and whether you see him as villain or anti-hero, Efraim Diveroli is one of Jonah Hill’s most enjoyable characters. During his first scene, I overheard a woman near me whisper to her boyfriend “This is the fattest he’s ever been!”

That may be true, but it suits the character perfectly. Hill’s bulk adds to Diveroli’s curated, larger-than-life swagger. Hill plays Diveroli, playing this Tony Soprano-esque character he has created for himself, even as he offers frequent clues that his back-slapping bejeweled druglord persona is just a mask for the doughy, insecure Jewish kid he still knows he is deep down. Hill also gives Diveroli a high-pitched, delayed stoner laugh, something enjoyable enough in its own right that it could’ve easily become a gimmick. As liberally as it was deployed in War Dogs, it rarely felt shoehorned or unearned.

Miles Teller, for as much as his dopey face cracks me up in pictures, is well cast here too. He seems exactly like the kind of go-with-the-flow guy who could be drawn into a hare-brained scheme simply for lack of other options — the doe-eyed Henry Hill to Diveroli’s overcompensating Shine Box Tommy. He’s a little like the non-manic version of Shia LaBeouf, as infinitely tolerable as LaBeouf is grating.

Of course, the challenge of making movies about boorish characters, as Todd Phillips has done his entire career, is that the boorishness of characters in a story can eventually start feeling like it comes from the teller. Or worse, the storyteller’s fear of being conflated with his characters can lead to preachy moralizing. Phillips and his co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic do a good job with the relationship between Diveroli and Packouz, but a pretty bad one with the Packouz and his girlfriend, Iz (Ana De Armas). She feels like both the token hot foreigner and Packouz’s moral compass, at once too innocent and too preachy. The movie wants her to be both Packouz’s aspirational drug lord trophy wife and his hometown gal who loves him without the trappings. It doesn’t work. She’s a plot device disguised as a person. She needs either more personality or less screen time.

And as good as War Dogs is at depicting a time and place, I don’t think it quite gets to the root of these guys either. It’s entertaining, and it’s part of a tried-and-true tradition of mostly-good-guy-gets-in-too-deep-because-of-his-shady-friend cinema, from Goodfellas to Pope of Greenwich Village, but it lays all the blame for Packouz and Diveroli’s eventual fall on Diveroli’s sociopath tendencies.

That’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s missing something deeper. The story Joe, my Trump University call center friend tells (we talked about it on this podcast, and again, if you doubt my personal anecdote, here’s a Planet Money episode describing essentially the same thing) is that once, when he got a gullible older lady on the phone, he ended up talking her out of spending any money on classes. This because it so obviously would’ve been a waste of money for her (she didn’t even have an email address) that he couldn’t even fake it. His supervisor happened to be listening in at the time and chewed him out for it. The supervisor’s response to him not wanting to bilk an old lady? “She would’ve done the same thing to you!”

There was a curiously adversarial, f*ck-or-be-f*cked attitude underpinning most of the scummy, scammy schemesters of the aughts (and possibly in all eras), that’s hiding just underneath the surface of War Dogs. It’s a zero sum, apocalyptic kind of worldview.

In an early scene, Packouz and Diveroli try to buy drugs from some guys on the street. When one of them pockets Diveroli’s $300 without producing the drugs and tells him to f*ck off, Diveroli calmly walks back to his car, pulls a submachine gun out of his trunk and shoots it up in the air, scaring off the guys who scammed him (…who still have his money and Diveroli still has no drugs, but whatever). Packouz’s voiceover says, “When life pushed Efraim around, he pushed back.”

Okay, sure, but there’s more to it than that. In “The Stoner Arms Dealers,” Lawson’s original Rolling Stone article, there’s a scene of Packouz sitting in Diveroli’s fancy car (a variation of which appears in War Dogs), before they ever talk of Packouz joining the arms business. Packouz wants to know how much money Diveroli is making.:

“How much money are you making, dude?” Packouz asked.

“Serious money,” Diveroli said.

“How much?”

“This is confidential information,” Diveroli said.

“Dude, if you had to leave the country tomorrow, how much would you be able to take?”

“In cash?”

“Cold, hard cash.”

Diveroli pulled the car over and turned to look at Packouz. “Dude, I’m going to tell you,” he said. “But only to inspire you. Not because I’m bragging.” Diveroli paused, as if he were about to disclose his most precious secret. “I have $1.8 million in cash.”

The question that’s never quite explored in War Dogs that underpins a lot of this is, what kind of person thinks of money in terms of “If you were being forced from your home, how much could you take with you to start a new life?”

Where does this apocalyptic, “everyone’s out to f*ck you” doomsday prepper worldview come from?

In War Dogs, there are hints that it comes from Jewish history, a recurring pattern of oppression and forced expulsions, but only very subtle ones. Diveroli’s silent partner in the film (Kevin Pollak), for example, is an Orthodox Jewish dry cleaner owner who thinks his money is going to help Israel. In real life, Diveroli and Packouz met at an Orthodox temple, but their silent partner was a Mormon from Utah. Why make this character a radical pro-Israeli unless you were trying to make some connection between Jewish discrimination and apocalyptic thinking? The film ends up leaving this strand underexplored, perhaps (understandably) as a way to avoid the minefield of associating (read: blaming) any negative traits with a particular race or religion. But instead, it gives us the “because Efraim was a sociopath” story, which feels both derivative and reductive, not to mention not entirely true. Simply leaving the truth, that the silent partner was a Mormon from Utah, might’ve solved both problems — that apocalyptic thinking isn’t limited to any one race or religion, and neither is it explained by sociopathy. A little complicated for a popcorn movie, perhaps.

In any case, War Dogs is a little too junior Scorsese to be a modern classic, but it’s probably Todd Phillips’ most honest attempt yet to explore both the flash and the moral rot of asshole-ish American male behavior. You can never write off a pop filmmaker who is so clearly trying to evolve, and once again I imagine Todd Phillips as a lot more moral than his characters.

And if you think all this Boiler Room talk is out of place in a discussion of War Dogs (Mike Ryan also noted some parallels in his review) consider the real Diveroli’s pitch to the real Packouz (a scene not in the movie):

“I was following in his footsteps. He told me I was going to be a millionaire within three years — he guaranteed it.”

What an oddly specific promise. Why a million? Why three weeks? I wonder where he got something like that.

BEN AFFLECK IN BOILER ROOM: This is the deal. I am not here to waste your time and I can only hope you’re not here to waste mine. So I’m gonna keep this short. You become an employee of this firm and you will make your first million within three years. Okay? Let me repeat that. You will make a million dollars within three years of your first day of employment at JT Marlin. Everybody got that? There is no question as to whether you will be a millionaire working at this firm, the question is how many times over.

That’s why getting these stories right is a little more important than just how well you can film a wealth-porn montage. The characters don’t have to be role models, but with so many real people taking cues from them, the movies that depict them need to at least be clear about who they really are. It’s not a sin to learn from how past movies, even good ones, like Wall Street and Boiler Room and Glengarry Glen Ross, are received. Todd Phillips, when he’s on, captures the true, queasy moral ambiguity of his boorish characters’ misadventures. And even when he isn’t, the fact that he even tries to, especially in films as mainstream as his, makes him much harder to dismiss.

†Aaron Sorkin is particularly good at disguising this weird id in all of this stories. “Steve Jobs: Tech titan! He was a dick to everyone, but that’s just the cost of greatness. Also he kept his daughter’s drawing one time so it was okay.”

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.