“War Machine” is a thinly fictionalized story of the fired U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Brad Pitt). Based on Michael Hastings’ book “The Operators,” it’s a view from the top of the military chain as officers wage a conflict they can’t bear to lose but will never win. The film asks pointed questions about the wisdom of modern war, particularly of the counter-insurgent variety.
The movies are as different as their studios. But together, they represent either proof for the importance of both companies at this moment of intense Hollywood competition or an unusually unambiguous test case for their divergent business strategies — Amazon embraces Hollywood’s traditional theatrical windows; Netflix does not — and even their respective filmmaking approaches.
“The films complement each other quite nicely,” Liman said. “But to be honest, ‘War Machine’ is a bit more of a Hollywood point of view. It’s what you’d expect Hollywood to say about modern war. ‘The Wall’ isn’t — it takes war as a reality and looks at what it’s like to be in it.”
“I don’t want to get into a spat with Doug Liman,” Michod said when told of the other director’s comments. “But it’s not as if we haven’t seen war films in the last 10 years about the experience of men fighting on the ground. The hole that was noticeable and unsettling to me is of films that don’t take as their basic guiding principle the unquestioning reverence of the military.”
Michod says he feels all the focus on Trump is hardly a reason to move on — in fact, the opposite is true. After all, he notes, in recent days, his movie has found itself unintentionally prescient, as news has broken that the White House is considering sending 5,000 troops back to Afghanistan.
“We’re seriously contemplating that? To achieve what? Secure a bunch of mud villages in mountainous regions inhabited by illiterate peasants?” Michod asked. “This film is definitely still relevant.”
‘Absurdity of war’
As he sat at a hotel restaurant downtown, Michod reflected on some of the ways his movie is sure to be divisive.
“War Machine” has only a loose narrative arc as it follows an incoming leader and his motley team as they arrive in Afghanistan tasked — maybe — with winning the war, then, later, loosely chronicles the events that led up to Hastings’ infamous Rolling Stone article and McChrystal’s firing by President Barack Obama. Instead of playing it straight, “War Machine” teases out absurdist characters in even more absurdist situations as they face a skeptical local populace and even more skeptical U.S. government. (Also, a skeptical media: Tilda Swinton serves as the film’s conscience, playing an interrogative German journalist in one of the movie’s most notable scenes.)
Maybe most extreme is Pitt’s highly stylized performance as Gen. Glenn McMahon (characters are given fictional names for creative-liberty purposes), lending the action a satirical edge.
“I instantly saw in the book a movie that would fit in that long tradition of American war comedy,” said Michod, the Aussie behind “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover.” “All the great ones, “Catch-22 ” and “Strangelove” and “MASH,” have at their core something true, yet they also amplify the absurdity of war. These modern wars seem to be built on the grand delusion — that in the face of no foreseeable tangible victory, you start to imagine that you can fight to help the poor and oppressed. And as soon as I hear delusion, I think comedy.”
Scoot McNairy plays the character based on the late Hastings, making his presence felt via a voice-over filled with punchy philosophy about military culture. (“These guys thought they were the most important guys in the world with the most important jobs in the world. Maybe they assumed I thought they were as amazing as they did.”) “War Machine” is as much an essayistic criticism of contemporary war as a narrative embodiment of it.
In the film’s final section, McNairy’s voice-over lays out the McChrystalized theme. “It would have been nice,” he said, “if the conversation after had been about the failure of the counter-insurgency, or why we seem so desperate to be at war all the time, or how maybe what we’re doing is making more enemies all in the name of keeping America safe,” So charged was the movie that the principals pushed it from the fall amid all that electoral explosiveness.
War Machine” was set up with studio mainstays New Regency and RatPac, but they balked at the budget, estimated at $60 million. Michod and Pitt’s Plan B pulled the project from there and set it up at Netflix.
“I think there’s a reason we’re here,” Michod said. “We needed Netflix; the studios today won’t make a movie this risky at this price.”
From Shoot Online:
In “War Machine,” Michod summons some of the spirit of war comedies like “Catch 22” and “M-A-S-H.” The film captures an American military driven by politics, illusions and personal aspirations. Pitt’s general, with a deeper, gruffer voice than McChrystal’s, comes charging into Afghanistan with outlandish delusions of grandeur and departs amid self-inflicted scandal.
“We were tapping into a melding of war and comedy – two things that used to co-exist quite conformably, but in this day and age don’t,” said Michod. “It’s very interesting to see how the two coexist in the public sphere given how strangely earnest all conversation about war has gotten in a possibly warped way. But there’s something almost truer in that kind of great comedy treatment of decades past than the nature of the discussion that goes on today.”
Michod grants it’s an approach that makes for some wild swings of tone in “War Machine,” but he says a mix of absurdity and tragedy is ultimately more realistic.
“At core, the thing to me that’s most powerful about ‘War Machine’ and what made it feel important to me was that it was about the way personalities can have an incredibly powerful and often a powerfully damaged ripple effect across the world,” said Michod. “The movie is called ‘War Machine,’ but that machine is made up of individuals, individuals with their own strengths and ambitions.”