Brad Pitt, Anthony Michael Hall, Anthony Hayes, Meg Tilly, Alan Ruck
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Though funny and pointed, War Machine is at its best when it drops the satire for more punchy drama.
After dipping his toe in American waters by directing the pilot episode of the under-celebrated TV series, Flesh And Bone, Australian writer/director, David Michod, now takes the deep dive with War Machine. And after the terse, tough, and distinctly Australian settings of his first two films – the lauded Animal Kingdom and the unjustifiably less so The Rover – this satire on America’s mishandling of the mess that is The Middle East represents a major creative detour for the exciting filmmaker. Michod is obviously on less sure footing here, and while that sometimes shows, War Machine rages impressively at a world driven by hubris and good intentions gone horribly bad.
Based on Michael Hastings’ controversial bestseller The Operators, War Machine turns hard-bitten truth into occasionally broad satire, reconfiguring the real life Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal into the fictitious Gen. Glenn McMahon. As played with a mix of sensitivity and pantomime silliness by Brad Pitt, he’s a curious figure. Backed by a team of boisterous military lackeys (strongly played by the likes of Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Aussie actor, Anthony Hayes, who has an absolute ball as a boozy chest-beater of the first, or perhaps worst, order), McMahon is charged with cleaning up the chaos in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Whether dealing with other delegates from The Coalition Of The Willing (including Tilda Swinton in a superb cameo) or trying to suppress the crumbling nation’s insurgents, McMahon is a man besieged. To make matters worse, he can barely get a phone call with his own government.
Despite its obvious satirical bent, War Machine is actually at its best in its more dramatic moments. The interplay between McMahon and his sadly neglected wife, Jeannie (a fine Meg Tilly), hits home with considerably more firepower than the scenes that he shares with Ben Kingsley’s Afghan leader, President Karzai, which are played at a near uncomfortable level of farce. It’s when Pitt lets his acting guard down – dropping the oddball Jim Carrey-style facial expressions and physical goofiness – that Glen McMahon makes more sense, and rises above caricature.
Despite being funny and consistently pointed, it’s hard to shake the feeling that War Machine might have been more satisfying if Michod and Pitt had hung tight with the true story of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal instead of tapping his experiences for laughs. War Machine is a brave and vital film, but there’s likely an even more brave and vital one inside it, overshadowed by its cock-eyed grin and satirical sneer.