In another day and age, a wartime picture starring Brad Pitt as a larger-than-life military leader might have been box-office catnip. But, with the exception of a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles, Pitt’s new movie “War Machine” is going straight to Netflix.
To some, that’s an indication of a grievous slide in moviegoing culture — the reason the Netflix logo was roundly booed when it appeared on screens at the Cannes film festival this past week — but, in this case, it feels like right-sizing. “War Machine” is an intriguing, thoughtful, ungainly, sometimes fatally awkward tonal mash-up that takes a notorious real-life story as its inspiration, and delivers a weirdly kaleidoscopic version of history that feels both recent, ancient and of-the-moment, all at the same time. Borrowing more than a few pages from Stanley Kubrick, it’s neither satire nor strait-laced battle picture, landing in an uneasy no man’s land that, ultimately, feels squeamishly on-point for the present time.
Pitt plays four-star general Glen McMahon, who as the movie opens has been sent to Afghanistan in 2009 as commander of U.S. and coalition forces. After success in Iraq, he’s convinced that he can, as he puts it, “win this thing,” finally getting the United States out of what’s devolved into an intractable quagmire. Bent, slightly bowlegged, his hair dyed a platinum blond, Pitt channels a man who was already legendary when he arrived in Kabul, known for running seven miles before breakfast and surviving on one meal and four hours of sleep a day.
That might ring a bell for some viewers: McMahon is loosely based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whose career came to an ignominious halt after reporter Michael Hastings wrote a revealing Rolling Stone profile of the general and his closest loyalists in 2010. Inspired by Hastings’s book “The Operators,” writer-director David Michôd has crafted “War Machine” as both a parody and a somber reflection on the hubris, self-deception and futility of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, creating a parallel world that feels both stylized and — as the Trump administration contemplates another troop surge in the region — queasily prescient.
There’s parlor-game entertainment to be had in figuring out who’s really whom in “War Machine,” which includes thinly veiled versions of civilian leaders such as Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Richard Holbrooke. Ben Kingsley delivers an over-the-top rendition of a spaced-out (but sometimes amusingly perceptive) Hamid Karzai. Anthony Michael Hall plays McMahon’s most trusted intelligence adviser, Greg Pulver, clearly based on the now-embattled Michael Flynn, whose animus during the 2016 presidential campaign is anticipated by the character’s dismissive comments about then-president Obama. “Yes we can . . . not do things,” Pulver sneers at one point.
But the roots of those frustrations are also given their due in a film that, even when casting a critical eye on the gung-ho mixture of idealism and arrogance that informed McChrystal’s counterinsurgency efforts, never results to opportunistic ax-grinding. The film’s most moving and effecting scenes occur when McMahon attempts to motivate troops preparing to make risky incursions into Helmand province. Where his speeches usually receive unanimous cheers of “Hell yeah,” in this case he gets unexpected pushback, as one beleaguered soldier asks him how they’re supposed to tell civilian enemies and allies apart. “We can’t help them and kill them at the same time,” he complains.
Similar questions are raised later by a German politician, played by Tilda Swinton, who challenges McMahon as he tours Europe, trying to rally for more troops. When U.S. forces finally move into Helmand, the physical and moral cost of their leaders’ bravado and theorizing comes into sobering, affecting focus.
“War Machine” isn’t perfect; far from it. Unlike his previous films “Animal Kingdom” and “The Rover,” here Michôd doesn’t always seem to have full control of the tonal complexity he’s admirably set out to achieve. And Pitt’s performance choices — the barking vocal delivery, the squat posture, the brow conspicuously cocked into a one-eyed squint — erases the very charisma that makes leaders such as McMahon so magnetic to the men and women who follow them. It’s clear that he’s looked to George C. Scott for cues. What isn’t clear is whether he’s channeling George Patton or Buck Turgidson.
But even with those flaws, this is a movie worth making, seeing and taking on board. It’s funny and sad and weary and wise, which feels just about right for now. “War Machine” is a weird, unsettled movie for a weird, unsettled time.
War Machine, 121 minutes, on Netflix.