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Why the Media Really Hates ‘War Machine’

War Machine [1], 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 [2] 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 [3] 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 [4]? Or an “assured and nervy black satire” that tries to have it both ways [5] 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 [6] 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 [7], 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.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Why the Media Really Hates ‘War Machine’"

#1 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 2, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

Alas, Americans like telling themselves stories about how their wars are always just, and they are fought honorably, and that they lead to glory, and all those patriotic cliches. The media believes them, like everyone else (I think that it is called American exceptionalism) and repeats it. And the military museum where I live holds Vietnam bivouacs for the kiddies, to tell them how much fun soldiers have, and that wars are fun, too.

So, when someone decides to tell the truth about it, he gets savaged for insulting the idols of the tribe.

#2 Comment By B On July 3, 2017 @ 1:04 am

Wow. Did you read the book? For one it isn’t “funny” or “comical” instead it reads like a tragedy. The book also implicates the incompetence of the administration and how their goals and reality on the ground never met up. And troops actually did question the mission directly to the General. That was widely reported and if I remember correctly Hastings mentioned it. The sad fact of War machine and other movies as of late is that they miss all the big points. Let me outline them:
1. A nation oblivious to the wars
2. A media that only covers what sells or catches the short attention span of the nation
3. Multiple administrations floundering through strategy after strategy
4. A President that came in with per-conceived notions “Afghanistan is the Right War” yet the inability to see through the commitments
5. A Congress on autopilot
Find anything “funny” now?

#3 Comment By B On July 3, 2017 @ 1:08 am

And let me add to number 4 above….or the ability to admit that he was wrong.

#4 Comment By connecticut farmer On July 3, 2017 @ 9:44 am

It’s tempting to lay the blame on the media but, in truth, they were mere accessories. The real villains are the two presidents who embroiled America in a war without end: Bush II and Obama.

#5 Comment By J Harlan On July 3, 2017 @ 3:09 pm

I found the best part of the movie was Tilda Swinton’s turn as a German pol who questions McMahon’s inability to grasp the futile nature of the mission due to his own ambition.

The sad truth is that there is no application of “strategy” in DC in the sense of a logic analysis of what will make America stronger. What is sold as “strategy” is really a conglomeration of institutional and personal interests- votes, cash, promotions, book sales and of course fame.

Even worse is the state of affairs in the rest of NATO. There the pols know the mission is futile and don’t even bother to make more than a half hearted attempt at justifying it but chuck in token forces to appease Washington.

#6 Comment By Kevin On July 3, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

“Find anything “funny” now?”

I haven’t watched the movie, but keep in mind that laughter was for centuries one sure way to convey the absurdity and stupidity of war: Simplissimus, Svejk, Catch 22…

#7 Comment By Colonet Bogey On July 3, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

“Media hate”, not “media hates”. Plural noun takes plural verb.

#8 Comment By summerbee On July 3, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

Brad Pitt ruined this movie for me. His performance grated on my nerves. Anthony Michael Hall was brilliant – nailed it.

#9 Comment By westinflorida On July 3, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

The real tragedy is the shocking death of Michael Hastings.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 3, 2017 @ 6:56 pm

I read the variety review an found myself laughing in spite of its harsh critique of Mr. Pitt. I also read the Rolling Stone article and was none too pleased with the obvious foraging of soldier belly aching to damage the career of Gen McChrystal — bad form and very bad show – amateurish.

My housemate has a netflix account that is not accessed nearly enough. As a huge supporter of the film industry, I certainly understand the angst of the growing bite being taken out of their apple. But in many ways, its healthy and let’s face it, thousands of unemployed, talented actors are find work. To that I say Bravo.

The country has a long tradition of poking fun at the nation’s use of military force. M.A.S.H was not about Korea, it was about Vietnam. An whether one is watching the film or the series there’s plenty critique about military policy, personnell and while not really addressed a lot of unfair play and characterizations by the supposed heroes. Enough to know they took more than their fair share of liberties with the truth.

Catch-22, an all but absurd critique of military operations and the insanity that war is and breeds.

Henry David Thoreau lambasted the Mexican War and its motives. What he missed is how careless Mexico was with their territory and having lost it looked for excuse to get it back, such as engaging in skirmish fights over borders.

We have plenty of movies that critique our war efforts, nothing so abused, misunderstood, maligned and wrongly accounted Vietnam. We won the Vietnam conflict/war by the way.

Most recent knock-outs: Sniper, Lone Survivor, Secret Warriors – Bengazi, Black Hawk Down, Platoon, etc. So if one wants to bemoan along with film military errors, and do so seriously — there’s plenty of fare to choose from.

Despite finding his politics blatantly liberal and often askewed. Mr Pitt is a phenomenal actor. The breath ans scope of his talents is hard to encapsulate. comedy, drama, action, science fiction, the absurd, he does it and he does it with a full commitment. I think he is a generous performer, with unique skills and range — it’s just unfair that so much talent variety should exist in one person. What may be hard to imagine is Mr Pitt playing the role of a senior commander, because he looks so incredibly – youthful. When I first read the idea in Variety, I too bocked. But in truth, if one takes a look at Mr Pitts film range as to genre, time, space and roles. That he could pull it off should come as no surprise. I have no doubt that he would to draw and quarter conservatives, happy to count myself among them. But I also believe he certainly has the talent to trenchout a performance that explores the multi-layered personalities of even our most stayed military professionals. I suspect there’s more nuance that is caught during a fort go around. I certainly appreciate the under appreciated talent of Mr Goodman, but if one is playing to type, and it reads as though they were, he would not fit the bill physically.

Ohh yummy, Tilda Swinton — and boodles of twisted depth, unnerving.

I guess I will have to bite the bullet and buy a computer for the tele’

As for US satire about our excptionalism, and it the country is.

Mark Twain and the following list:

[8]

Not on this list is one of favorites, a midwetern cowboy, who was popular through the 30’s and 50’s who used to do rope tricks on stage. If someone remembers his name he should definitely be included (tip of my tongue but escapes me.)
—————-

Here’s hoping that Mr and Mrs Pitt rediscover whatever it is that drew them together to restore their relationship.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 3, 2017 @ 7:02 pm

Private Ryan, Sands of Iwo Jima – all serious films asking serious questions, minus the humor – also considered knockouts.

juxta posed against How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

#12 Comment By Dan On July 3, 2017 @ 8:11 pm

J Harlan, the NATO comment was correct to a point they were not committed to a mission except in the context of virtue signalling either to DC or inside their own political debate at home.

Several countries prioritised Afghanistan as the “good war” at the time of Iraq as a way of signalling we are not refusing to go to Iraq because we are all cowards, look we are sending men to Afghanistan. See Canada, France, Germany, they were then joined by others who initially went to Iraq but then wanted out I.e. UK or Spain.

There is then the internal fights of whoever is in power is criticised for not supporting the troops enough acting as poodle of US. In the U.K. awe originally went in to Helmand in Afghanistan in 2006 as a way of distracting from leaving Iraq, we went in with 3,000 men and the Conservatives mercilessly criticised Brown in the press for providing inadequate troops or helicopters or armour, by the time they took over in 2010 there were 10,500 men there, they did not increase the numbers in the slightest, they did not change the equipment mix and they proceeded to gradually withdraw. The debate was about how it would play in the U.K. a press or in relations with the US, what the point of the mission was, was never clear.

#13 Comment By B On July 4, 2017 @ 1:09 am

@Dan, if we look at history we quickly realize that putting the Brits into Helmand was like pulling a scab off a century old wound. But then again who bothers to research these things and learn about the history before jumping in. Apparently no one does.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 4, 2017 @ 1:09 am

Ge, did I get those dates wrong. It’s Will Rogers and he passed away in 1935. Why h ticks out in memory through the 1950’s is unknown to me.

#15 Comment By Charlie On July 4, 2017 @ 6:04 am

The problem the American military is the inability to comprehend the cruelty, venality, greed, sloth and the family based politics of places such as Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia. Political correctness has blinded leaders in most of the West to much of the character of the people outside of their orbit.

Greece and Rome were different because their characters were different. The ability of Romans to forge a single identity enabled them to expand whereas Greek competitiveness prevented a unification until the Macedonians conquered them.

Democracy is a product of self control which comes emotional maturity which creates the ability to see the benefit of cooperation beyond the family and the valley.

Modern day mocks much of the military because of Hollywood lacks the courage,loyalty, fortitude,patriotism and honesty which is required for the military and especially elite units: which makes them feel inferior. A man who is concerned abut his pretty boy looks is unlikely to have what it takes to pass rigorous selection, especially marines/special forces. The reality is that Hollywood completely lacks the quality of pioneers which is what made America great.

The days when the Democrat Party included tough men who worked in dangerous jobs and had served in the military are long gone. The loyalty, toughness and competence to work on a drilling rig, mine or construction site are very similar qualities required for the military.

The military is everything Hollywood can never be and therefore they must mock it in order to hide their inadequacy- read Orwell’s essays on this subject.

In Athens, fighting for the city gave one citizenship, not wealth.

If one was on ship which sank and one swam to an island; what qualities and skills would one want in one’s fellow survivors? I cannot think of many Hollywood types who would be useful, apart from Lee Marvin( ex USMC and saw combat in the Pacific )

#16 Comment By Hound of Ulster On July 4, 2017 @ 12:25 pm

Never get involved in a land war in Asia

#17 Comment By J Harlan On July 4, 2017 @ 1:53 pm

Dan,

The ironic thing about Canada’s war is that it returned (in a medium way) to Afghanistan in 2003 out of fear of casualties in Iraq and then took them at rate 100% above similar sized US units went it switched to Kandahar in 2005.. The Aussies made a big deal of going to both wars but managed to go to relatively safe areas and avoided the casualties the Canadians took.

The Canadian PM at the time of the mission (~ 2006-2010), Stephen Harper, blustered on about “we don’t cut and run” and then did just that. A training mission in Kabul and Mazar etc. provided the cover for the retreat.

He learned his lesson. The Iraq anti-ISIS mission was split between Kurdistan and Kuwait and has suffered no KIA at enemy hands. The next PM, Justin Trudeau, took note and has nixed another Afghan mission betting training in Erbil will be safer than training in Kandahar.

This is the cost of being clients of a modern empire. You maintain military forces you don’t need for your defense so that you can provide token groups when the empire calls- or worry about tariffs on whatever you make.

#18 Comment By J Harlan On July 4, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

Does anyone else find it ironic that McChrystal ran an assassination organization in Iraq and Hastings, after causing McChrystal’s downfall, died a single vehicle accident? There would be a lot of people within SOCOM and the CIA with the motive, mindset and skills needed for revenge.

Nah. It was just a coincidence.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 5, 2017 @ 11:41 am

“The problem the American military is the inability to comprehend the cruelty, venality, greed, sloth and the family based politics of places such as Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia. Political correctness has blinded leaders in most of the West to much of the character of the people outside of their orbit.”

I think its just the opposite here. The desire for some manner of politically correct ethos is what in part is driving the interventions.
On the international scene I cannot think of anything more politically correct than women’s suffrage and the right to kill children womb as cause for intervening in these states.

As for your your other observations, I thought you ere talking about the US or the west sociopathy.

#20 Comment By KA On July 12, 2017 @ 8:07 am

Thanks EliteComminc .

Do we need the low IQ brain damaged to understand Newtonian physics ,let alone Quantuam theory ? No. We don’t. The disabled needs help and other kind of mental activities .
But the coach and the drama teachers keep on pushing them to do exactly the same hard arduous tasks . This reveals the IQ of the coach and the drama teachers . The information is not derived from formal tests. But it comes out in the novel ,the movies,the stories written from intimate observations.

Out of frustration ,now the coach ,the teachers and their adulators blame the ground ,blame the humidity ,blame the lack of well fitting dress and proper uniform .

#21 Comment By Superposition On July 29, 2017 @ 8:06 pm

“As if every Afghan person is really just a Canadian wearing an elaborate costume.” What’s more hilarious is this encapsulates the immigration policy of the entire West.

#22 Comment By Wesmerga On August 6, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

What I really don’t understand is so why many military and ex-military people love war machine. They don’t realize or don’t accept that the entire film is basically mocking the office corps and its’ mentality