There is a scene toward the end of the Netflix Original War Machine, showing U.S. Marines attempting to suppress insurgent fighters during a big operation in Afghanistan. They have to “win the war,” but they also have to protect civilians. The problem, of course, is that insurgents look just like civilians — at least until you can see a gun in their hands. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta, Get Out) plays one of the Marines, and he starts to shell a building that contains people who are definitely shooting at his men. After three attempts, the shooting doesn’t stop — so he grabs a gun, gets off his rooftop, and walks in alone. It’s an intense sequence, and you see this soldier trying to decide who to shoot, who is a threat and who isn’t. He makes his way into the building, and finds a dead child. Yes, there were insurgents there — but it was also a civilian home. He sits down in front of the child’s father, leans his head back, and breaks down. I’ll be honest, I teared up too. It was a powerful moment.
Oh, did I mention that apparently War Machine is a comedy?
The film is inspired by Michael Hastings’ 2012 book titled The Operators, which is a behind-the-scenes look at the high-level military machinations around the war in Afghanistan, and in particular the downfall of General Stanley McChrystal, the man in charge of U.S. and international forces in the country. In fact, McChrystal’s downfall came about after Rolling Stone published a profile of the General, also written by Hastings, who spent a month with McChrystal and his closest men. The article depicted these men — the ones ultimately leading the U.S. policy in Afghanistan — getting “shitfaced” and insulting Vice President Biden, amongst other things. It got the General fired.
The movie is a fictionalized adaptation of the book. All the names other than Obama’s and the Afghan President Karzai (played by Ben Kingsley, because why not) have seemingly been changed. General Stanley McChrystal is now General Glen McMahon, and played by a steel-haired, squinting Brad Pitt. His performance choices, from the gravelly voice to the constant waddling early morning jogs, are presumably an element of the “comedy.” To me, it was sort of like watching his character in Twelve Monkeys grow up and start impersonating Tommy Lee Jones. It was whiplash-inducing.
Michael Hastings is now the fictional Rolling Stone journalist Sean Cullen (played by Scoot McNairy). You may not realize he’s in the film at first, though, because the character is mostly just an INCREDIBLY INCESSANT narrator throughout the first half of the film. He’s a friendly, critical voice-over telling you what to think about each of the characters as you meet them. He is a journalist setting a tone, which is fine — but this is a movie, not an article. When he does arrive on screen to follow the General on a diplomatic mission and witness the drinking and insults, the narration finally subsides… and then the character doesn’t seem to do much. He’s there, he takes notes, and in the end his article comes out and ruins McMahon.
So this clearly isn’t a documentary, and it isn’t quite a faithful dramatization either — though it seems faithful enough to the source material that it’s curious why any names were changed at all. Not that creative license wasn’t taken, of course. In one key moment, McMahon goes to meet President Obama while they are all in Europe, but the President doesn’t have time to talk to him so it becomes a mere photo-op. In reality McChrystal did actually get a few minutes of face time with Obama.
Mostly what holds it back from being a dramatization is that War Machine so clearly wants to be a comedy. There are tech support jokes, and we’ve mentioned Pitt’s acting choices, but beyond that I think we’re supposed to laugh at the inherent absurdity of a bunch of hoo-rah military men trying to “win” a war when nobody can really agree on what “winning” looks like or how to go about it. The hilarity of bringing publicists on military offenses (spoiler alert: who do you think gets blamed for the Rolling Stone fiasco?) because optics matter most when your justifications for fighting are unclear. The ludicrous image of the Afghan leader in bed with a cold, watching Dumb And Dumber on TV, and giving his (unnecessary) go ahead for a planned military campaign.
There is one moment when McMahon looks out over a poppy field. He is told that the Afghans are being given support for growing heroin, because it provides money and jobs. When McMahon asks why they aren’t being encouraged to grow cotton instead, he’s told that Afghan cotton would go out on the international market as a competitor to U.S. cotton, and U.S. aid funding can’t support that sort of industry. It’s played for laughs, and I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t. It feels too real to be funny. And maybe that’s the real problem. There is no doubt that this movie isn’t quite the biting Wag The Dog-style satire it wants to be, but I think it also just came out at the wrong time. These days, funny isn’t really funny. I don’t even know what is funny anymore. A few years ago I would have laughed if I’d seen a movie about a man getting elected after joking about grabbing women by their pussies, because that is INSANE, and yet here we are.
Perhaps a confused movie about a confusing military operation is appropriate. And to be fair, I walked away from this movie feeling like I learned something about the reality of the situation in Afghanistan — namely, the frustration of soldiers who are trained to kill and to win, who are putting their lives on the line while being rewarded for showing restraint and not killing. Soldiers who are expected to win, but have no idea what that even means after so many years, while general after general cycles in to fix things and politicians around the world decide their fate. Soldiers protecting people who just want them to leave (and rightfully so).
So yeah, this is a movie that you can watch on Netflix as of today. And basically any scene with Lakeith Stanfield singlehandedly justifies the time spent watching this movie. Or really, you can just read the book.