David Michod's film for Netflix is a fictionalized adaptation of Michael Hastings' The Operators, itself an expansion of the Rolling Stone magazine expose that led to the fall of General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in 2010. In real life McChrystal was ruined by Hastings' revelations of hard drinking by his staff, including the now-more-disgraced Gen. Michael Flynn, and open contempt for the Obama administration. All of this plays out, with the names changed, in War Machine, but the film fails to answer the main question it raises on its own: what has all of this to do with the film's main character, or, more pointedly, what does he have to do with the scandal or the ongoing quagmire in Afghanistan.
The fictionalized McChrystal, Gen. Glen McMahon, is played by Brad Pitt, a producer of the film. Pitt is in character-actor mode here, less interested in being a leading man than in making a character, or at least a performance, out of odd postures and a funny voice. McMahon's right hands is often contorted into a kind of claw, while he jogs with a lumbering stride, with his arms hanging almost limp. Michod and Pitt clearly consider the physicality of the actor's portrayal important to the story, showing McMahon shamble through army bases and European cities, but it's hard to figure out what exactly this illustrates apart from Pitt's commitment to the role. Likewise, McMahon's burly burr of a voice sticks out among the generally more naturalistic performances, but not in a good way. It makes McMahon sound like a cartoon character -- at times I thought it might be Pitt's impersonation of George Clooney playing a general in a Coen Bros. film -- when no one else does, except arguably for Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon's apoplectic right-hand man, the Gen. Flynn analogue. I don't know whether Pitt arrived at this performance from studying Stanley McChrystal, following Michod's direction or by making it up himself, but it's a huge distraction, and something is terribly wrong with a movie if you start to think of its star performance as a distraction.
It seems like a distraction because Michod appears to be trying to explain both the fall of the real general and the American failure to secure Afghanistan, but nothing in Pitt's performance really helps explain these things. In part that's a major failing on Michod's own part as the screenwriter, since despite the advantage of dramatic license the script fails to make his fictional general either exceptional (except for Pitt's eccentricities) or explanatory. McMahon himself doesn't really seem like a bad guy. He doesn't share in the excesses of his staff and he makes conscientious efforts both to understand the war from the grunt point of view and to be courteous toward Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president (Ben Kingsley). His main problem seems to be that he sees the war through a haze of organizational jargon and management theory that convinces him that there must be a way to win the war, when others recognize that Afghans will never acquiesce to foreign occupation, no matter what theory you apply to it. In short, for all his apparent virtues McMahon is clueless, but so what? It's not as if he started the war, and it's not as if he was in command long enough to make a difference one way or another, and because of Pitt's mannered performance it's hard to say whether he's a representative U.S. military man. For all I know, Pitt may have made his performance more eccentric than it needed to be because he realized that if he didn't do something to stick out the character of the general would be exposed as a void on screen.
While War Machine has a hollow center it's not a total debacle. When we finally get to see some war, Michod wisely takes the focus off Pitt and gives us a tense battle from the grunt's perspective, climaxing in a soldier's anguished realization that he called a strike on the wrong target. Even Pitt isn't a total loss. After two scenes I decided I'd rather see a two-hander consisting only of Pitt's general and Kingsley's Karzai interacting with each other. In late life Kingsley has become a king of character actors, -- dare I say a mandarin? -- and Pitt raises his game with that kind of partner, as he does during a press-conference showdown with Tilda Swinton as a persistent German critic. Those good scenes, however, expose War Machine as a fragmented collection of vignettes that never really coheres into a compelling story or a distinctive statement on America's Afghan war.