Satire comes in two modes: Juvenalian – harsh, critical and in service of a serious point – and Horatian – light, humorous and affectionate. In attempting to do both, David Michôd’s War Machine doesn’t quite succeed at either, never fully gelling into the absurdist War on Terror satire to which it aspires.
Brad Pitt plays the fictional US Army General Glenn McMahon, brought into defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Flanked by an admiring entourage of misfits, McMahon’s cult of personality is risked both on the battlefield and in the company of slick, duplicitous politicians using McMahon’s reputation to further their own careers.
Alan Ruck is particularly memorable as the slippery Pat MacKinnon, manipulating McMahon in what he views as a PR exercise. Elsewhere, Topher Grace is memorable as McMahon’s own public relations stooge, though indicative of a talented but underused supporting cast.
Pitt’s reprisal of his shtick from Inglourious Basterds is striking but never quite sits right with either the tone or the subject matter. McMahon is an absurd caricature, his lower jaw jutting forward and his right hand twisted into a claw as if perpetually holding a gun. It’s as if he’s transitioned from the world of Dr. Strangelove into a Wes Anderson film, complete with a deadpan voice-over, bright colours and sharp, comic editing.
Wry detachment is all well and good – Catch-22 is an obvious reference point here – but all too often the film’s sense of irony conflicts with its moments of sincerity. The press conference where Tilda Swinton’s German politician lays bare McMahon’s personal hubris, for example, is effective in isolation but jarring as part of the whole.
That’s not to say War Machine doesn’t have a very serious and cogent point to make, however: the war on terror is a failure and further intervention in the Middle-East can only lead to more chaos. Early on, Scoot McNairy’s narrator cooly explains why counter-insurgency – winning hearts and minds – never works because “you can’t win the trust of a country by invading it; you can’t build a nation at gunpoint”.
A shot of McMahon at dawn as he convinces himself that he can achieve what no one else has perfectly captures the west’s (partially) well-intentioned hubris in the region. A last minute cameo, too, is bleakly funny in its observation of the west’s singular refusal to learn from its own mistakes. In the end, War Machine is a good film but not a great one, hamstrung by too many ideas and too little focus, its effectiveness eroded as it pulls itself in multiple tonal directions.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell