Published in July of 2010, Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General” offers a damning account of the United States’s military presence in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, via a portrait of General Stanley McChrystal. A conspirator in the Pat Tillman cover-up, McChrystal was a darling of the Bush administration who played a game of PR chicken with President Barack Obama so as to be given 40,000 more troops to initiate a controversial “counterinsurgency” stratagem he called COIN. In Hastings’s words, this theory “essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.”
Which is to say that the United States tears a country down and expects gratitude for indulging pretenses of rebuilding it, which are partially paid for with the money earned from cash crops such as heroin. Hastings’s undisguised contempt for McChrystal’s ignorance, ego, hypocrisy, and anti-intellectual bluster invigorates a scalding portrait of war as a self-perpetuating business model that’s culturally laundered by politicians who can barely keep the euphemistic bullshit straight themselves. The article famously led to McChrystal’s dismissal, and was expanded by Hastings into a book, The Operators. In his writing, Hastings guides his readers through thickets of politics and warfare, parsing studied bureaucratic incomprehensibility with a clarity that elucidates the exploitive horrors such machinery was designed to obscure—a journalistic achievement that eludes David Michôd’s fictionalized adaptation, War Machine.
As with many procedurals that blend true-life reporting with quasi-comic composition, the film has no clear idea what it wants to be. Brad Pitt plays a McChrystal stand-in, General Glenn McMahon, in the key of one of his broadly ridiculous buffoons, softening and sentimentalizing McChrystal in a manner that’s at odds with Hastings’s writing and with the film’s own despairing portrait of violence in Afghanistan. Hastings painted McChrystal as a shrewd hawk playing the U.S.’s hopelessly underfunded diplomacy department against a financially swollen, under-led military that had come to resemble a self-conflicted hydra. By contrast, McMahon is an absent-minded professor who floats around Afghanistan and Europe with his cadre of maniacal yes-men, talking of COIN with a cluelessness that Michôd intends as satire. With few exceptions, McChrystal’s viciousness, air of superiority, and deterministic grace are lost among the film’s competing tones, capping the narrative’s teeth.
Michôd seems to believe that comedy is achieved with a smirking attitude rather than with punchlines. The filmmaker is aiming for a free-floating war-is-madness metaphor that’s reminiscent of Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. and David O. Russell’s Three Kings but settles instead on an aura of weightless callousness. War Machine quite loyally follows “The Runaway General,” restaging McChrystal’s various meetings and dinners as McMahon attempts to net support for a war that’s defined by its status as a profitable lost cause. Along the way, McChrystal is lectured by other countries on the obvious: about how you can’t win a populace over by killing neighbors and destroying infrastructure. But McMahon presses on in the tradition of the American military at large, then and now, viewing Afghanistan as a “nut to crack” rather than as an ambiguous web of human cultures.
Like Hastings, Michôd can’t hide his disdain for the Middle Eastern Forever War—a morally laudable instinct that leads him down a self-righteous alleyway to a dramatic dead-end. The military bureaucracy doesn’t come alive in War Machine, which is larded with lifeless exposition outlining the situation in Afghanistan and the biographies of McMahon and his men. The film’s first 20 minutes are a particularly inelegant dump of factoids, in which Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), a surrogate for Hastings, describes the function of each person in McMahon’s entourage, even though they will prove to have little relevancy to this story as Michôd has chosen to tell it.
Underneath the political legalese, every scene serves to proclaim that this war is idiotic and reprehensible—inarguable points that aren’t, in themselves, the stuff of invigorating cinema. The film succumbs to a temptation of the culture wars that are unraveling the U.S. by hectoring rather than plumbing, taking sides rather than reveling in the emotive infrastructure that art can provide. Only a few fleeting scenes bother to explore the internal temperatures of McMahon and his men, and those usually involve the excellent, viscerally enraged Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon’s second-in-command.
Like Barry Levinson’s The Wizard of Lies, there’s little dramatic reason for War Machine to exist apart from offering lessons that would be better gleaned from their respective source materials. These films impede the reformatory causes they espouse, as they render existential crises of American entitlement dull and tedious, inadvertently encouraging audiences to further tune out information that they deem troubling, inconvenient, or, most likely, baffling.