Netflix is quickly becoming a major player in content production. But for every hit it has – Stranger Things, Series of Unfortunate Events, Master of None – there’s bound to be a couple that miss that mark. But that’s the way creation goes. Either you fail, or you make a hit. So what about Netflix’s newest original film War Machine?
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in. I had no idea this was based on the whole Stanley McChrystal debacle of 2010-2011. At first, it was just a story of a general and his team. But it became quickly evident that this film was more than a satirical statement on the American military complex.
For those of you who don’t know the story of General Stanley McChrystal, he was, by all accounts, a fantastic general. He cared about his troops and he cared about his mission. But… he was also kind of an ass hole. He didn’t really like being told what to do and had a little bit of a problem with authority (which kind of makes you wonder how he made it in the military).
Regardless, he made it all the way up to a four-star general and was appointed commander of the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Then, in a really good move, he let a reporter from Rolling Stone follow him around for a while, said some really stupid shit about his bosses, and got fired.
That’s his story in a nutshell, and that’s the basic premise of War Machine. Brad Pitt plays the role of McChrystal, err… McMahon, and plays him very well, I think. He’s not so much an actuation of McChrystal, but a parody. Every one of his flaws and features are exaggerated, and he even has a few quirks of his own.
But all of that makes for a character you can feel for and respect. He’s got the typical hallmarks of a general – gets up early, runs 7 miles every morning, eats only one meal a day, and “… his hand is permanently grabbing at something, like he’s holding a cigar that the health-conscious man would never allow himself to smoke.” (I can’t remember the exact quote, but that’s the gist of it.)
But the movie doesn’t just focus on the man. It’s also the story of his retinue. Five men constantly follow McMahon around to all corners of the globe waiting on him hand and foot. There’s his IT guy, his ‘best friend,’ his marketing manager, his PR guy, and his personal assistant. Each one has their own special job, but they all have one thing in common: they treat McMahon like a god. And for a good reason. Sure, because they all like having jobs, but because to them, he is a god. He’s the greatest general ever to walk the face of the Earth, and they’re there to treat him as such through every step of his journey.
There is, however, an issue with this. Every civilization has their own form glorification of powerful individuals. The Romans had the triumph, where, once returning from a successful campaign, generals would parade through the streets and be treated like gods. They would wear a laurel crown (usually reserved for depictions of Jupiter), and everyone would cheer and cheer as they showed off their winnings. But, in order to keep him grounded, there was always a slave in the back of his chariot whispering in his ear “Remember that you are mortal.”
When power goes unchecked and individuals get told how awesome they are every single day of their lives, they start to believe that they can do no wrong. It’s just like senators today. Most of these people have been in a position of power for 10, 20, or 30 years – some even longer – and they constantly have people in their offices telling them how wonderful they are, how fantastic a job they’re doing, and how they can’t do anything wrong. Without checks, power begins to take over you, and that’s exactly what happens in this movie.
McMahon believes he’s there to do a job: to win the war in Afghanistan. He does everything in his power to do so. But there’s a catch. War isn’t just generals and soldiers; war is politics. He doesn’t take into account that other people have interests, too. For instance, there’s an election going on when McMahon requests 40,000 troops to come in and reinforce his attack on Helmand. When he tells an advisor his plan, the advisor freaks out. “You can’t do that during an election year,” he says. “You were told you wouldn’t be getting any more troops. Do your job with what you were given.”
But McMahon goes around his advisor. He asks anyway, and he pays a price for it. Every act of insubordination (and that’s really what it is), is met with a consequence, eventually resulting in McMahon being fired. He does and says some pretty stupid shit, yeah, but you can’t help feel sorry for the guy.
This does bring about some conflict for the viewer (for me, at least). McMahon (McChrystal) was just trying to do his job. He was there, as the 4-star general, to win a war. But, in the eyes of his superiors, he’s not there to win. He’s there to fix the mess the last guy made. Do they know he’s not going to win? Do they not want him to win? Do they really want nothing from him but to get us ready to leave? Obviously not or they wouldn’t have ended up giving him the troops he asked for.
Apart from the story, the acting was all magnificent. I really enjoyed Pitt’s portrayal of McMahon, and the supporting cast really bolstered his performance. I also really enjoyed the setting. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve actually been alive for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but war movies set in this time are quickly becoming my favorite. Maybe it’s because there is the aspect of ‘politicians vs. generals vs. enemies.’ I feel like this addition makes it more difficult to tell who the true enemy is. Is it the man coming in to take control? The men they’re fighting? Or is it the politicians who are more concerned with an election than finishing what they started?
One thing I would’ve liked to see more of in War Machine is actual war. There was a small fight scene during the beginning of the campaign to take Helmand, but I don’t feel like it highlighted the effort enough. If this was, as the movie points out, the defining moment of McMahon’s career, why wouldn’t they show more of it’s failures, successes, or stalemates? I understand that the film is more about the politics of war than the war itself, but still. If anything was lacking from this film, it was the war.
War is hell, I’ve said that before in this blog. But war and politics mixed together are even more hellish, especially in the modern age. I don’t think the purpose of this movie was to make you feel for the general, but from my perspective, you really began to empathize with him. He’s a man just trying to do his job, and if you have obstacles in the way, you do everything in your power to get over them.
I will definitely be picking up the book the film is based off of, The Operators, to get the full story. I might have lived through it, but War Machine piqued my interest of this tumultuous time. It may not be Netflix’s greatest original work, but it certainly keeps up the pace with some of their other fantastic content.
Reed’s Review Corner
8.2 fruit salad ribbons out of 10.
Brings to light the aspects of modern war.
Doesn’t highlight the war enough.
Story could’ve been explained a little more clear. (But maybe that’s the point?)