by Alan Yudman
Gen. Stanley McChrystal was famously fired from his post as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan after a scathing Rolling Stone article in which he and his staff were seen as out of control, drunk and hyper-critical of President Barack Obama. Sounds like perfect fodder for a movie. Charismatic general, endless war, outrageous characters. Yeah, it seems to tick all the boxes. So why doesn’t WAR MACHINE work at all?
Brad Pitt plays the McChrystal character, fictionalized as Gen. Glen McMahon. He is coming from outrageous success as a commander in Iraq. His counterinsurgency strategies were lauded as key to winning. So they decide to dump him into yet another quagmire to see if he can extricate a win. As we all know, that didn’t happen. So how did it all go wrong? The movie doesn’t clearly explain that. McMahon is portrayed as eccentric, earnest and slightly detached from his staff of seeming misfits. We are told they are great, but we only have anecdotal evidence of that greatness. The one highlight is Anthony Michael Hall who plays a general not so loosely based on Gen. Michael Flynn. Yeah, that Michael Flynn. He’s hot headed, outrageous and fiercely loyal to McMahon. Kind of a scary dude. If the real Flynn is like this portrayal, I wonder how he ever got even a sniff at National Security Adviser.
Anyhow, back to this weird movie. The major problem is that the film is not sure what it wants to be. Is it a cutting satire of the military? An accurate record of what really what happened? A drama with hints of comedy born out of frustrating? I have not a clue. Neither does the movie. It steps up to all those lines, but never fully commits to one theme. It doesn’t help that Pitt is hopelessly miscast as McMahon. He also doesn’t seem sure how to play him. He grunts a lot, but doesn’t seem crazy or competent enough. That adds to the confusion about where we are headed.
I went back and re-read the Rolling Stone article just to see how accurately things are portrayed. It’s pretty close. Some situations are altered for the purpose of drama or storytelling. But it is fairly accurate. Maybe too accurate. It doesn’t go far enough to the absurd to be a good satire. It’s a shame because this could have been really good given the source material. Kind of a modern Dr. Strangelove. Unfortunately, WAR MACHINE misses the mark.