How does an accomplished general win a politically unpopular war against an insurgent enemy without killing any civilians?
That problem has faced every commander for the nearly 16 years of America’s involvement in Afghanistan. It’s also the problem that confronts a fictional general in the Netflix original movie “War Machine,” out May 26. The film is a farcical take on the first commander former President Barack Obama appointed to lead American forces in Afghanistan.
The film follows Gen. Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), based on the real Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as he struggles to achieve victory in a never-ending conflict without the support of Washington D.C.
When one general fails to win the un-winnable war in Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s approach is to “sack the guy and put in a new one,” as the narrator puts it.
McMahon, like McChrystal, is an accomplished and bombastic general with a sterling war record from fighting in Iraq. He’s picked to clean up the mess that is Afghanistan in 2009, but his idea of success is far different than the diplomatic corps of the Obama administration.
The story is based on a 2010 Rolling Stone article and subsequent book “The Operators” by journalist Michael Hastings, who followed McChrystal and his staff for several weeks. Hastings’ work is a damning portrait of a general out of touch with both the political realities of Washington and the daily struggle of the soldiers under his command.
Director and screenwriter David Michôd didn’t have to change McChrystal’s or any other character’s name. Oliver Stone didn’t change former President George W. Bush’s name when he portrayed the 43rd president as an incompetent frat boy in “W.” Without naming McChrystal, “War Machine” is not so much a hit-piece as it is a nihilistic account of a proud and goofy general trying to score a classic military victory in a different kind of war.
To win, McMahon has to convince Obama’s diplomats, who just want to keep Afghanistan out of the headlines, that winning is possible.
The general can’t just manage the conflict or withdraw, he has to win the war. So he goes behind the Obama administration’s back to tell a newscaster that Washington must deploy 40,000 more troops in order to win, and Obama begrudgingly gives him 30,000. Afterward, the president announces to the world that the troops will begin to withdraw in 18 months.
“Buddy here just announced to the whole of Afghanistan we are about to abandon it,” barks one of McMahon’s officers, Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), pointing to a framed portrait of Obama. “That’s like telling the bad guys that all they gotta do is wait out the next 18 months, and we’ll be gone.” (Watch a clip of that scene on YouTube.)
McMahon still wants 10,000 troops, so he travels to Europe to convince the French and Germans to increase their support of the coalition. He presents a laughably jargon-filled plan for counter-insurgency and a German politician, played by Tilda Swinton, accosts him, questioning not his methods nor his ability but his self-awareness.
McMahon is a hubristic, hard-assed buffoon who thinks he’s General Patton. His hands are bent permanently into a claw. He gets up every day at 4 a.m. to run seven miles. He’s forceful and respected around his own team, but he is clearly uncomfortable when he communicates with diplomats, Afghani President Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), and even his own wife.
McMahon’s staff operate like fraternity brothers, but instead of planning a toga party, they’re organizing a coalition of the world’s strongest militaries. However, they do respect each other and would die for their leader.
McMahon gets his coalition and goes through with his plan. Don’t kill civilians under any circumstances, he orders a group of Marines — who in the movie look more like stunt doubles for a “Revenge of the Nerds” remake than warriors consuming 3,000 calories a day. To one Marine, the general’s admonition seems like being ordered not to be a Marine.
“War Machine” goes after everything ridiculous about America’s involvement in Afghanistan, like training local security forces who would rather sit under a tree and get high than pick up a rifle.
As McMahon tours the country, he asks an American aid worker why Afghan farmers can’t grow something like cotton instead of poppies. The U.S. can’t subsidize a crop of cotton that might compete with American growers on the global market, the man replies, “so we grow heroine.” (RELATED: USAID Brags About Helping Farmer Starting Pomegranate Orchard, Shows Photo Of Him In Poppy Field)
The film takes startling turns to illustrate the horrors of war and the consequences of McMahon’s strategy. Without giving anything away, the battle scenes lack exactly what the director seems to be going for — a stark dose of reality in the midst of cringeworthy cluelessness.
Nevertheless, “War Machine” stands alongside political farces like “Veep,” “In The Loop,” “Alpha House,” and the current season of Saturday Night Live in depicting American leaders not as sober-minded adults doing their level best but as self-centered incompetents steering the most powerful nation on earth towards a tragi-comic demise.
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