Review by C.J. Bunce

When Brad Pitt has another winning performance you find you’re glued to the screen.  From Twelve Monkeys to Meet Joe Black, Ocean’s Eleven to Inglourious Basterds and Moneyball, Pitt has range, plus the charisma and presence that translates to star power.  As with Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp, if you can strip away the celebrity and focus on the performance, Pitt seems like he just can’t fail.  Pitt is just as mesmerizing as any character in his past body of work in the new film War Machine.

In another time War Machine would be a theatrical release–it carries the production values, cast, script, and studio support as much as any other movie, and is produced by Pitt’s own Plan B Entertainment, the same company that garnered a Best Picture Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave.  But we’re now in No Man’s Land.  With Netflix making not only its own competitive, award-winning shows for the small screen, it has moved on to the theatrical film that simply isn’t intended for a theatrical release.  War Machine is based on Rolling Stone writer Michael Hasting’s book The Operators, a biographical account of now retired General Stanley McChrystal that was expanded from the piece he wrote when he was embedded with the general and his men.  You’ve heard the story, the one that took down the general’s career as he was attempting to gain traction in his efforts in Afghanistan in 2010.  McChrystal’s was an American story, one that has plagued leadership in wartime notably since World War II– how do you win a seemingly unwinnable war?  You’ll be hard-pressed not to find story elements from Vietnam days in War Machine, but also echoes of the Persian Gulf War, and other actions where data, facts, politics, economics, miscommunication, and personalities muddled direction and purpose.  Only War Machine isn’t about McChrystal really–Brad Pitt’s character is only based on McChrystal.  For storytelling purposes it’s close enough, and fortunately allows the viewer to enjoy the fictional story being told without the effort of comparing the story to the real events the underlying book was chronicling.  So throw out your own politics for a few hours and get ready for an interesting character study.

Were War Machine released in theaters, there’d no doubt be discussion of the film as the next chapter in a line of films with Twelve O’Clock High, The Best Years of Our Lives, Apocalypse Now, Patton, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July.  Pitt’s General Glen McMahon is Pitt aged a decade or so, sporting gray hair and a fixed sideways sneer, a raised eyebrow, and a stature (especially when running exercise laps before the other troops awaken) that makes him almost unrecognizable.  McMahon is smart, fierce, determined, and strong–the perfect selection for someone who has been appointed to complete an impossible task–in essence, do all that needs to be done to fix Afghanistan and get ready to leave without bringing in more troops–when he should have known he was doomed to failure from the beginning.  Don’t we want our generals to be confident, strident, and to a certain extent, bold risk takers?  McMahon is quirky, just a little bit off, while exhibiting a bravado and charisma–albeit awkwardly packaged–that entrenches the picture in believability.  Pitt believes in his character so we do as well.  This includes the loyalty of his men, which begins to form the movie’s all-star cast, including McMahon’s obnoxiously loyal, angry, and mouthy#2 man played by Anthony Michael Hall (the film’s take on then-Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served 24 days recently as national security adviser) and an image guy played by Topher Grace.  The cast is rounded out on all sides by Ben Kingsley as President Karzai, Alan Ruck and Griffin Dunne as Administration policy wonks, Tilda Swinton as a German politician, and Meg Tilly taking on the role (brilliantly) of McMahon’s wife (plus a nicely handled cameo by Russell Crowe).

And it’s all streaming on Netflix.  But don’t think of this as direct-to-video.  This is merely a new path for Hollywood to get to the audience.  Think of it as the new cinema.  And War Machine is good.  It illustrates why we subscribe to streaming services like Netflix in the first place.  Will it work?   Financially speaking we’ll probably never know how War Machine fared against its competitors this month–Wonder Woman and The Mummy. 

War Machine on paper sounds like a drama, possibly even a dry drama.  It’s certainly a war movie with only one action sequence, cunningly slow and real-timed instead of the typical animated “charge Bunker Hill” scene.  But the film is billed as a dark comedy.  It’s not without humor, but the humor here is the same kind of nervous laughter found in any war movie to ease the burden of war for the viewer.  If it’s really a dark comedy or comedy at all it’s not really that funny, but something more revealing than your average comedy.  McMahon’s war, and his own conflicts, reflect the reality of conflicts in the 21st century.  The war movies listed above, excepting only The Best Years of Our Lives, were released with the benefit of the passage of time.  Afghanistan is still today.  So if War Machine is only, really, a comedy, then it’s probably a comedy a bit too soon.  But if it’s a drama, then, regardless of the political leanings of the viewer, it lands just right as a look in the mirror, a chance to reflect, and like the decision makers behind McMahon in the movie, an opportunity to make a course correction.  Satire?  A treatise on the absurdity of war?  You be the judge.

The other question we won’t find the answer for until early next year is whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will take a Netflix movie as even weight against its normal band of nominees.  Although the film itself is likely not of that caliber, Pitt’s performance continues to show his range and skill as a performer.

Watch War Machine now available for streaming and not in theaters, only on Netflix.

 

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