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.
Described in the book as a more gaunt version of Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn, Pitt plays McChrystal… er, McMahon, almost as the military version of a tech exec — a gruff, squinty, good ol’ boy whose men love him but who nonetheless turns tone deaf any time realities on the ground conflict with one of his big ideas. On the surface the portrayal feels over-quirked and actor-y, like Pitt simultaneously plagiarizing himself as Aldo Raine and Chad Feldheimer from Burn After Reading. But Pitt’s is such an earnest portrayal and Michôd’s script such a deft balance of sympathy and critique that it works perfectly as absurdist tragicomedy, drawing us in with McMahon’s goofiness and then twisting the knife when we recognize his humanity. Oh hell, that overconfident, projecting egomaniac is also us, isn’t he.
War Machine is a hell of a balancing act. Scoot McNairy, as The Operators author Michael Hastings, narrates the film from off camera for most of the movie, doing much of the expository lifting in a role that almost any traditionalist would call “too much voiceover.” But War Machine finds exceptions to the “show don’t tell” rule, like McNairy’s description of McMahon’s signature hand gesture, “a permanent claw, like it was still clutching the WWII cigar his modern fitness fanatic self wouldn’t allow him to smoke.”
Brad Pitt dutifully reenacts this throughout the movie, which wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without the poetic description, nor would the description be quite as powerful without the visual aid. Later, McNairy’s Hastings calls McMahon “humble in a way that says ‘my humility makes me better than you,'” which is a great line, voiceover or not. With voiceover so often used as a crutch, or at best something we accept as the best option under the circumstances, it’s rare that a filmmaker find a fresh use for it.
Was that cigar line in the book? Does Stanley McChrystal really look like that when he runs, his legs spread wide into an athletic crouch, arms barely moving, like Fred Flintstone hauling 12-pound testicles? I don’t remember, but it feels right. Michôd has a singular way of embellishing that makes even his lies feel honest. (I couldn’t find footage of McChrystal jogging online to compare, but it looks like Michôd and Pitt may have extrapolated from McChrystal’s strangely ape-armed way of walking)
Many of the critiques of Hastings’ book took issue with its overwhelming focus on the absurdities of life in the military’s leadership apparatus at the expense of the men on the ground. (In my opinion the obvious disconnect was kind of the point.) War Machine achieves a nice balance through the frame of Forward Operating Base Sasquatch, a group of soldiers who aren’t sure how the hell they’re supposed to implement McMahon’s high-minded counter-insurgency program, simultaneously killing people and being their friends. This could easily have come off facile, and it is, a little, but only in the most eloquent way, nailing the essential conflict and then boiling it down to its starkest terms. It helps that Sasquatch’s chief objector is played by Lakeith Stanfield, the brilliant young actor from Short Term 12, Atlanta, and Get Out. In fact War Machine is beautifully cast all around, from Stanfield and Pitt to Brooklyn‘s Emory Cohen (total Oscar snub) as McMahon’s “body man,” and Topher Grace as the smug, private sector PR dilettante who sets up McMahon’s disastrous Rolling Stone profile.
These types of non-fiction adaptations, from Argo to Lone Survivor, have come to be defined by the post-credits epilogue scene, complete with actor/real person side by side photos and blocks of Where Are They Now text. That this has become a trope betrays the degree to which these movies have become merely collections of interesting facts — their post-credit scenes merely the repository for those facts that wouldn’t fit. War Machine has no use for a post-credits scene because it knows exactly what story it wants to tell and tells it. Understanding what your story is about makes editing individual facts much easier. War Machine ends exactly where it needs to, with a cameo I won’t spoil, and feels sleek and lean even at a little over two hours long.
Which is impressive, because there are a whole lot of interesting facts about what happened to McChrystal after his supposed “fall from grace” — all the various corporate boards he joined and the books he wrote for business execs, becoming something of a personification of the military-industrial complex. Hastings, meanwhile, died in a suspicious car crash. (“Whenever I’d been reporting around groups of dudes whose job it was to kill people,” he said once, “one of them would usually mention that they were going to kill me.”)
If War Machine was an Oliver Stone movie, Hastings’ car crash conspiracy would’ve taken up half the story. Michôd, by contrast, understands that his story is powerful enough with just the stuff we can prove. It’s not about conspiracies, or about a general who was a really bad guy. It’s about public opinion that only cares about foreign conflicts when it suits us, and a system that favors the kind of generals who say they can fix what everyone else says is broken. It’s about… well, a “war machine,” if you will.
War Machine premieres on Netflix and in select theaters this Friday, May 26.
UPDATE: Here’s some footage of the real McChrystal running at the beginning of this video. Definitely not as weird as Pitt’s version, but enough resemblance that the parody makes sense.