War Machine, the new Netflix original movie starring Brad Pitt playing a disturbingly over-confident General based on Stanley McChrystal, is controversial for all the wrong reasons.
First there was the kerfuffle at Cannes, where Netflix was booed for breaking tradition by submitting films that would be released on laptops instead of theaters. Then there was the casting of Brad Pitt, which some categorized as a colossal misstep. Variety said that the almost surreal comic role should “have gone to John Goodman, or some comparably gifted character actor.” And then there’s the focus of the film itself. Is it an “irrelevant and brash” alpha-male misfire? Or an “assured and nervy black satire” that tries to have it both ways by mocking the war even as it sympathizes too heavily with the officers who wage it?
What gets ignored in all of these various reactions is the reality of the ongoing war itself and how this film relates to it. Sure, it’s novel and interesting that online streaming companies are producing original films. And of course the wisdom of casting a Peter Pan hunk like Brad Pitt as an American general is up for debate. But isn’t the real scandal that there’s an ongoing occupation to critique at all? If the film comes off as brash, it’s because it conveys an irreverent confidence that almost seems to anticipate the media missing the forest for the trees. A major theme of the film is, after all, how mass media fails us on a moral level, always transforming events that require somber moral reflection into superficial sleaze. And so I can’t help but wonder if reviews of War Machine have been so uniformly unfavorable because of the disconnect between the ongoing war and popular culture, and how the film implicates the media in sustaining that rift.
War Machine is based on the book The Operators by the late journalist Michael Hastings. Hastings was the gritty, hard-nosed type of reporter that’s an endangered species in our slop-saturated media environment, who rose to professional prominence in large part for his Newsweek reporting on the Iraq war. After his then-fiancee, also a journalist, was killed by insurgents in Iraq, Hastings wrote the touching and deeply searching memoir I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. But he made his biggest splash with his Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The piece, which detailed McChrystal and his staff’s contempt for civilian government officials (and most importantly, President Obama), eventually led to McChrystal getting sacked and a Polk Award for Hastings. It also led to Hasting’s book The Operators, and, eventually, the film War Machine, both of which elaborate on the Rolling Stone profile and explore McChrystal’s time in command.
It should be said that both the book and especially the movie are very funny. As the narrating character Sean Cullen, based on Hastings, (only semi-accurately) says, “Wars aren’t fought by nations or armies. Wars are fought by men.” And the man standing at the center of the occupation of Afghanistan at the moment this film portrays it, is Glen McMahon (read: McChrystal), an All-American overachieving health nut who has Ivy League graduate degrees and supreme confidence in himself, his troops, and his mission. He’s too perfect, and so a little bit strange and comical. And, suggestions to the contrary aside, Brad Pitt plays him with perfect comedic timing. The uncomfortable grin, the stiff and endless jogging, the odd aloofness towards his roving band of sycophantic followers, are all exquisitely executed by Pitt. You see him moving like a dynamo through his environment, starting off his command with a requisite fact-finding mission, and completely oblivious to the hostility of the locals or the desperation of the troops who have been there a while. The writing’s on the wall, but Pitt as McMahon seems constitutionally unable to read it. He bops along like a commissioned Energizer Bunny, effortlessly forcing the situation on the ground to fit the tight and conventional cookie-cutter shape of his mind.
The thesis of the movie is pretty obvious and runs through the entirety of the film like a drum beat: You can’t build a nation at gunpoint. There’s no way to win the war in Afghanistan in any meaningful sense. And yet we remain there, trapped in a forever-war and unable or unwilling to let go of our zombie ideology, despite both reason and experience convinced that if we just stay a little longer or try a little harder we can achieve the impossible. As if every Afghan person is really just a Canadian wearing an elaborate costume.
Pitt’s performance confirms him as the most underrated comedic actor of his generation (as also evidenced in his work from his short cameo in True Romance, to his splendid performance in Burn After Reading). There’s a short scene after McMahon has gone to Europe to drum up troops from NATO allies to support his 40,000 soldier mini-surge where the General is on one of his innumerable runs through the empty early morning streets of Paris, complete in PT shorts and belt. It’s funny, of course, but in echoing the same runs in Afghanistan, we can imagine the General doing the same thing in the same outfit anywhere in the world. At home nowhere. A comically tragic American Hero unable to escape or transcend himself. And I couldn’t imagine anyone but Pitt playing him.
Of course, anyone looking for factual inaccuracies in the film will find them. There’s no way, for instance, that a Marine sergeant would openly question the purpose of the mission to a general, as happens in film. But scenes like that are necessary to the narrative. It’s important to show how the impossible ideology of interventionism translates into frustration and cynicism on the ground. And it’s the same thing with scenes between the general and his wife in Paris, how uncomfortable and awkward they are around each other, having spent so little time together since 9/11 (she calculates it at 30 days in the last 8 years). Who can say what the real McChrystal’s relationship with his wife was like, but the marriage shown on screen is symbolic of the heavy burden bore by all military spouses and families throughout our occupations.
Meanwhile, Obama floats above the story, aloof and detached from a war that he seems unable to control or stop even if he cared enough to do so. But if there’s a villain in all of this, it’s the media itself, diluting important conversations about war with superficialities and failing to ask the pertinent questions. As the narrator explains towards the end of the film after his Rolling Stone profile of the General leads to his dismissal, what should have been a cold look at an incompetently run war is instead read as a celebrity fall from grace story. Which is exactly what happened in real life. McChrystal got canned. The war continues.
And so you can’t help but read reviews of the film which focus on Netflix or the casting, or complain about “machismo” in a war movie as displaying the very myopia that the film accuses them of. What lengths will they go to ignore the seriousness of our failed interventionist policies and the role they themselves play in it all? As War Machine shows us, pretty far indeed.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.