by Ken Bakely
David Michôd and Brad Pitt seem to be on completely different wavelengths all throughout War Machine. Both of them are capable of making a movie out of this material, but the problem is that they seem to be making different ones at the same time. Michôd, in his capacity as writer/director, helms the project as a dry and dour satire of modern warfare and all its bureaucratic trappings. However, Pitt, playing the straight-edged, hard-headed General Glen McMahon, goes off the deep-end, turning in a throaty caricature with a grunting voice and a puffed-out chest. As you go a bit further, you realize that Pitt’s performance isn’t developed beyond the exterior demeanor, and Michôd hasn’t dug into anything of note. Not only do they seem to be making two different films – they’re making two bad ones.
McMahon is a fictionalized version of Stanley McChrystal – he’s a mildly eccentric, yet gruff and disciplined officer who’s been assigned to lead a dragged-out and unpopular war in Afghanistan. He lobbies for the addition of 30,000 extra troops to wrap up the United States’ involvement in the conflict. Soon, he finds himself pulled like a puppet, from private contractors to Washingtonian higher-ups, trotted around the planet to formal functions and meetings that he is unable to diplomatically handle. All the while, a journalist (Scoot McNairy) follows him and his core team around, and their bizarre comments and actions are all committed to the record.
What kind of personalities form the general’s inner circle? It’s hard to say, because none of them exist beyond the most basic of outlines. McNairy is given a droll narration to read throughout War Machine, conceived with such blatant expositional intent that it serves no other purpose than to be an emergency remedy for the chronic underwriting which keeps the film from ever focusing. Individual moments land, such as a scene that involves the technologically illiterate McMahon and one of his computer-savvy soldiers (RJ Cyler) working together to get out of an embarrassing Skype interrogation with a superior. Yet it’s overwhelmingly obvious that Michôd is trying to make a sharp, multidimensional, wit-fueled takedown, and cross far beyond the boundaries of another sketchy farce.
This divide hits harder when you think back to Pitt’s miscalculated performance. Nowhere is the disconnect more obvious than the handful of scenes he shares with Ben Kingsley, who portrays Afghani president Hamid Karzai. While both characters are written to be rather oblivious of each other, Kingsley’s deadpan delivery of his dialogue conflicts with Pitt’s overblown readings. It’s not that Pitt’s acting is especially bad, but he doesn’t fit into the movie happening around him. This ends up serving as yet another reminder of War Machine’s unevenness where its structural backbone differs from the elements of its execution in the most radical of ways.
With a runtime coming it at over two hours, you have quite a while to make these observations. There’s certainly not much happening to keep you engaged. A roving cavalcade of supporting actors – including Meg Tilly as McMahon’s long-suffering wife, Tilda Swinton as an anti-war German legislator, and Anthony Michael Hall as a general with a very short fuse – are given some entertaining scenes before being indefinitely shoved offscreen. War Machine, aware of its potential, has assembled an impressive team of stars, and demonstrates what it can do in some dynamic sequences, but fails to achieve any underlying goals. A tantalizing vision at the center is muddled by an unclear set of internal and external directions. How do you categorize this kind of thing? A pity? A missed opportunity? An unrealized concept? Whatever it is, it doesn’t work.