“Why is a general talking to Rolling Stone in the first place?” That the question asked near the end of War Machine, a film loosely based on “The Runaway General,” a National Magazine Award finalist for excellence in reporting by Michael Hastings. (The same article, it should be mentioned, that helped lose Gen. Stanley McChrystal his job as commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.)
Hastings, who died in a car crash four years ago at 33, expanded his 2010 profile of McChrystal into a 2012 book-length expose called The Operators. He caused a furor by reporting comments from the general and his staff that were critical of Obama’s war policy, saying it would lead to “Chaos-istan.” Long story short: The man talked shit about the President and got shit-canned for it. But there’s more here than hubris. The real story at the core of Hastings’ reporting remains the war machine and how it operates. That’s why Rolling Stone is talking to him in the first place.
And that should be why Hollywood and Netflix decided to make a movie. There’s certainly dramatic conflict to spare in the story of a rogue general who decides he can win the war even as Obama announces dates for the withdrawal of troops. Brad Pitt stars as the military man, here dubbed Gen. Glen McMahon for reasons best known to litigators. The star can be great in go-for-broke roles (12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Snatch, Burn After Reading, Inglorious Basterds), but he pushes the character too far into caricature. Pitt goes big and blustery when what his performance needs is more stealth and danger. The general believes he can win the war through counterinsurgency. He believes in the men who soldier on for him. As much as he believes in his own personal glory? Probably not. But there are three dimensions to this ramrod. Pitt and the script give us one.
David Michôd, the talented Australian writer-director of Animal Kingdom and The Rover, loses his way in the byzantine byways of global warfare. His movie wants to be savagely satirical – a sort of millennial Dr. Strangelove. But he lacks Stanley Kubrick’s keen eye for the skull beneath the skin. The filmmaker delights in showing Obama snubbing the General on every occasion, especially on an airport tarmac. Afghanistan’s democratically-elected leader, Hamid Karzai (Sir Ben Kingsley), is shown obsessing over DVDs. And one scene, at a Paris restaurant, with the general watching his master plan unravel before his eyes, achieves a high level of farce.
But the too-blunt comedy defangs the film. As does the irritating voiceover from the Rolling Stone reporter, played Scoot McNary, which breaks a cardinal rule of filmmaking: show, don’t tell. In “The Runaway General,” Hastings wrote of McChrystal: “His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you’ve fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.” Damn, I would have liked to see that. And I bet Pitt could have shown it to us – but not in this movie. Somewhere along the way, War Machine forgot that world leaders and policy wonks don’t mean a thing if they’re not flesh and blood.