Year: 2017
Director(s): David Michod
Writer(s): David Michod, based on a novel by Michael Hastings
Region of Origin: US

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 122 mins

Synopsis: Based on events surrounding the Afghan War. 

“That’s the slow shuffle to freedom”, says War Machine’s titular character amid the lumbering voting lines of Afghanistan’s 2009 elections. Who’s freedom, and what type of freedom he’s talking about is up in the air in David Michod’s latest film, which presents the idea as a nebulous, shifting term dependent on tragically opposed perspectives. Such is the undefinable arena of conflict that Michod dissects in War Machine, a biting satire of America’s time in Afghanistan. Based on author Michael Hasting’s fact-based The Operators, Michod’s latest is a war film, but one that focuses on the administrative mechanics of a self-imposed battle, rather than battlefield front lines. The film plays things straight, and is funny until it gets too painful to laugh. Star Brad Pitt headlines a capable ensemble of misfits, while Michod crafts the intricate character portrait of a doomed General seemingly stationed for the sake of going through the motions.

Things center around General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), himself a loopy but surprisingly strong-willed stand in for Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Knowing that the war in Afghanistan is futile, the White House sends McMahon over for an assessment, putting him in charge of America’s resources in the country – what they really want for him is to give them a simplified excuse for bringing the troops home. McMahon, however, has other plans, a highly decorated officer with an inner circle of beloved misfits, the hardened General wants to “win this thing”. Despite strong insurgent factions and cloudy support from his superiors, McMahon essentially brews a war of his own, convinced that he can tame one of the country’s most volatile regions through some misguided act of American will. The reality of McMahon’s situation is that things are much more complicated than he figures, sending things into a spiral with no clear end in sight.

Though the world of administrative war politics is infinitely complex in Michod’s film, it’s digestible through a clever framing device, that of a Rolling Stone profile featuring McMahon. By turning the film’s politically complex dealings into a low key character portrait (one designed to titillate and bend the truth), the film is free to balance reality, fiction and absurdity, culminating in an absurd look at how the battle between ego and truth is one rarely won (among other things). In addition, Michod’s outsider perspective touches upon the way we as a nation dissect a war we don’t understand, relegating it to noise that’s quickly forgotten. This ideas are devastating, which is all the more surprising that the film is very funny when it wants to be, playing things straight and sly while being poignantly devastating the rest of the time. This is a rare type of war film, one that’s keen to look at all the angles while focusing on how psychosis, imperialism and public perception shape the outcome of modern warfare. Of course, war is more complicated than these issues, but the film’s intimate, humane focus provides a easy starting point.

In terms of performances, there’s a large ensemble at the helm, with each person pulling their weight. Pitt’s McMahon is front and center, blending cartoonish mannerisms with aloof delivery. His performance might be too much for some, but eases us into a film in which truth is stranger than fiction. Pitt also helps to stitch the film’s myriad of tones together in a way that makes emotional sense. Meg Tilly carries most of the film’s heaviest scenes as McMahon’s long-suffering wife, Jeanie. The pair share a few pivotal scenes and Tilly really puts things into damning perspective. As for McMahon’s entourage, Anthony Michael Hall, Emory Cohen, John Magaro and RJ Cyler all add color, giving Pitt a diverse set of stalwarts to play off of. Scoot McNairy ties everything together, a reporter looking for a hot story who is quick to judge rather than trying to truly connect.

Like the actual war in Afghanistan, War Machine at times feels like a snake biting its tail, never standing still for too long and approaching a bevy of ideas and themes throughout. Michod’s film does feel like the best way to handle the material however, capturing its insanity and matching it note for note, even without losing sight of the human traits that makes it so alarming. Up till now, the film’s marketing has been woeful, presenting it as a dumb screwball comedy without much to offer – though there is an element of this, you’ll be surprised of where the film is willing to go, and where it ultimately ends up. Even as an account of more muted times (not to belittle what happened), the film’s human truths ring as loud and clear as ever.