Review: 'War Machine', Brad Pitt Can't Save This Mission From Failure

At the outset of David Michod's War Machine, General McMahon (Brad Pitt), takes a crap in a stall at a Dubai airport, then marches triumphantly away like he just won the battle of Hamburger Hill. It's both a sign of the lack of seriousness paid to serious material, and a metaphor for McMahon's shitty mission statement. As he goes marching from one pile of crap to a far worse one, McMahon is incapable of realizing just how badly his situation stinks, because in his mind he's the only guy in the world who can clear the air.

War Machine is an odd film, which tonally falls somewhere between the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading and 2001's military satire, Buffalo Soldiers. Neither is appropriate for an adaptation of late journalist Michael Hastings' book, The Operators: The Wild And Terrifying Inside Story Of America’s War In Afghanistan, which was based on his piece in Rolling Stone that destroyed the career of General Stanley McChrystal, then the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. McMahon is basically the McChrystal stand-in, and he's just been given the mountainous task of "cleaning up" the war in Afghanistan, whatever that means. You could probably put "whatever that means" at the end of any of McMahon's mission parameters and it would fit. Known as a born winner, a soldier's soldier who always speaks his mind and says what others are scared to, McMahon only knows victory. And he's convinced his way of doing things, far away from the pencil pushers and bureaucrats of Washington, will lead to victory.

But what in the Hell does "victory" actually mean? McMahon and his quirky team of skilled aides, played by John Magaro, Topher Grace, RJ Cyler, Anthony Hayes, Daniel Betts, and Anthony Michael Hall as the now-infamous Michael Flynn, are asked to led the counterinsurgency effort which is in itself ludicrous since WE are the insurgents. Kinda hard to change hearts and minds when you're the invading party, and just dropping a few leaflets doesn't do it. McMahon is a bulldozer when a mission like this requires nuance. He was doomed from the start, although his efforts are sincere.

There's satire here, or a lazy attempt at it, but the targets are scattershot and the jokes not particularly insightful or funny. Perhaps they would have been a decade ago, but after years of debate and late night talk shows they feel a little stale. An example would be McMahon's comical meeting with President Hamid Karzai, which plays like Brad Pitt doing his worst Clint Eastwood impression while having a conversation with Kingley's Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3. It's just weird, and leaves you wondering what the heck that scene was all about? Much of the film's first half is occupied by such lame grabs for humor as McMahon gallivants around the world, running into the very Washington politicians he loathes, who then proceed to hamper his mission just as he always claimed they would. And yet it's them who get to ride on Air Force One with the President, not him.

Pitt is already getting railed for what many consider the worst performance of his career. I don't know about that, but it is one of the most bizarre. It's stranger (and much less funny) than his incomprehensible turn as a punching bag in Snatch. His McMahon is a cockeyed, overconfident buffoon, leading his sheep over a cliff and into a public relations nightmare. Don't get me wrong, I think Pitt probably has the movie's cartoonish tone down better than just about anybody with all of his outlandishly rigid mannerisms. It just seems like the wrong movie was formed around him as others try to play their characters straight. The one exception is the always terrific Lakeith Stanfield as a soldier mystified by the murky parameters of their mission. McMahon takes a liking to him for speaking his mind, but it's also the beginning of his slow realization that maybe he's been given a task Hercules couldn't shoulder. The final stretch is McMahon coming to grips with that head-on, and the balance shifts to become more somber and thoughtful. The consequences of this absurd mission are played out as the confused Marines (including Stanfield's character) are forced into a battle to take Helmand Province. Michod, whose previous work has been on Aussie thrillers Animal Kingdom and The Rover, seems more comfortable in the firefight scenario. However, the scene itself feels like it was brought in from a completely different movie, and like someone decided the military guys needed some kind of visible win since they don't come away looking very heroic.

War Machine never establishes a clear mission statement, leaving its director and talented cast in unfamiliar territory with no exit strategy.

Rating: 2 out of 5