"What do you do when the war you're fighting just can't possibly be won in any meaningful sense? Well, obviously, you sack the guy not winning it and you bring in some other guy. In 2009, that war was Afghanistan, and that other guy... was Glen."
When President Obama inherited the war in Afghanistan from Bush, he enlists four-star General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) to take charge and finally end the eight-year conflict. However, upon taking the position, General McMahon and his associates find that their particular brand of leadership and ambition doesn’t mesh well with the type of conflict their encountering or the administration back home’s agenda.
War Machine is the latest in a string of films coming from the online streaming service Netflix. Netflix has been dipping its toe into the world of distribution with rather successful results, nabbing the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore and the upcoming Bong Joon Ho film Okja, but their production slate has been less than desirable to say the least. While they have become the masters of the television production, they've approached the film production side with caution, having only dabbled with a few lower budget productions and a slew of Adam Sandler films. War Machine marks the first big budget, dare I say legitimate, film to be produced by Netflix.
Boasting a $60 million budget and a bona fide star as lead it was totally possible that Netflix would have gone the safe route with their first major production, creating a film that's conventional and easily enjoyed by everyone. War Machine is not that film. In a bold artistic move the streaming service instead have produced a unique tale of one man’s hubris getting the best of him, leading himself and those around him to certain ruin.
War Machine is the third film from Australian writer/direction David Michod whose two previous films, Animal Kingdom and The Rover, were dark and brooding examinations of the human condition, albeit in drastically different settings. He’s proven himself a master of tone and character and War Machine continues this trend as Michod cleverly weaves a narrative of one man’s ideals and ego getting in the way of the bigger picture. Parallels are drawn to Narcissus as McMahon and his cohorts do all they can to achieve their goal and Michod slowly let this unfold. He’s smart to never alienate the audience from McMahon (this is due in large part to Pitt’s performance) but rather works to endear the General and his men to us, making their inevitable fall from grace all the more bittersweet.
Brad Pitt is a truly interesting actor. When looking back at this filmography you’re hard pressed to find a performance that he didn’t give it his all. Even in his smaller roles like Floyd in True Romance or J.D. in Thelma and Louise he’s really going for it, creating a character that lives and breathes and is distinctly different from anything he’s done before. With General Glen McMahon Pitt is GOING for it. The characterisation he’s created for the General is completely unique, imbuing him with a swagger that is both commanding and comical (the scenes of him going for his early morning jogs are particularly great). His speech is sparse and authoritative but Pitt manages to convey a gentle sadness behind it all, leaving the General as not just a mere caricature, but as a real person.
The supporting cast do their best to keep up with Pitt’s portrayal and thankfully all play it as real as possible, not bombarding the film with too many large characters, which allows Pitt to control the film and its narrative. It’s a veritable who’s who of character actors with Anthony Michael Hall’s stoic second in command made all the more intense with his sudden outbursts, Scoot McNairy delivering a quiet and reserved performance as the Rolling Stone reporter who serves as the films narrator with Anthony Hayes, Topher Grace and RJ Cyler all bringing their A-Game in the smaller roles they inhabit. It’s also great to see older Alan Ruck, Meg Tilly and Griffin Dunne again, all solid older character actors who, for some reason, are often forgotten about.
With War Machine David Michod has constructed a measured and thought provoking examination of a man struggling with legacy, what that means and how it can affect you. It’s a strong character driven film with a ballsy performance at its centre. With some well timed comedic moments sprinkled in for good measure, the film is never heavy handed in what it delivers and works at all times to engage and entertain its audience. Hopefully this original and bold film is the first in what will be a line of solid film productions from Netflix.
7.5 out of 10.
Reviewed by Chris Swan.