Netflix’s ‘War Machine’ — Or: How I Learned To Question The Politics of Perpetual War
Netflix continues venturing into original films with a satirical war film starring Brad Pitt.
“What do you do when the war you’re fighting just can’t possibly be won in any meaningful sense? Well, obviously, you sack the guy not winning it and you bring in some other guy.”
This question — or, depending on who you talk to, fact — is the main essence of Netflix’s new original film, War Machine, and it tells us a lot about itself: there is something about war it wants to say and it’s going to be said with some humour. Such a description inevitably draws comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s famous Dr. Strangelove, and while War Machine will never reach that high bar, it makes a respectable attempt.
War Machine follows Brad Pitt’s perpetually-squinting, borderline caricature Glen McMahon, a four-star general touted as the difference-making leader needed to end the war in Afghanistan, a war primarily fought against insurgents— people who, as described by the narrator, “picked up weapons ‘cause…so would you if someone invaded your country.” McMahon’s method of choice? Counter-insurgency, or the art of “convinc[ing] the people that they’re better off with you than they are with the insurgents.”
Much of the film’s humour highlights the irony of counter-insurgency. Establishing a democratic government, building roads or schools, and stimulating the local economy won’t garner you much trust with the locals if it’s done by an occupying force. As the narrator succinctly says: “You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it; you can’t build a nation at gunpoint.” But of course, Glen believes his way will get the job done.
This confidence — or, as film presents it, hubris — becomes another theme of the film. This war, as we’re told, is the culmination of General McMahon’s training and ambition, it’s a high point in the life he’s dedicated to war, which, unfortunately, may not result in the clearest decision-making. As Tilda Swinton’s character says to McMahon: “It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion, to make your moment glorious.” (Dr. Strangelove would approve of that sexual double entendre.)
Those are the two major themes of War Machine: remaining in a pointless war backed with questionable ideology and man’s own hubris. The first is not only present in fiction, such as George Orwell’s 1984, but also in our world today (e.g., the “War on Terror” and “War On Drugs”). The second is something any individual can potentially relate to.
War Machine’s billing as a satirical film, however, does an injustice to the film, as it covers up the fact that it’s based on, not only a real war, but the real General Stanley McChrystal, who has crossed paths with current U.S. person of interest Michael Flynn. McChrystal resigned after a face-to-face with President Obama (played by an impersonator in the film) in response to a damning Rolling Stones profile that exposed his troops’ partying, as well as some of his comments regarding then-VP Joe Biden.
Other, supporting, characters are also based on real people (with different degrees of added satire) — the journalist who penned the damning profile and the then-President of Afghanistan, played by Ben Kingsley, who essentially recycles his role as The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 (which interestingly enough, featured a character named War Machine). And if that isn’t realistic enough, there’s even a very timely Fox News joke. LaKeith Stanfield of Atlanta and Get Out fame also has a significant role, as a confused and torn soldier.
War Machine is produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, “Plan B’, which has been responsible for Oscar Best Pictures: The Departed, 12 Years of Slave, and, most recently, Moonlight. It’s a film Netflix hopes will continue carving out a place in Cinema for them and it’s a film with roots that can be traced to 1964’s Dr. Strangelove while touching on themes seen in 2017. As War Machine ends — this is not a spoiler because the film literally tells you how it’ll end, and it’s based on a real story — McMahon is replaced by another General of the same mold (a cameo that I won’t spoil) and we go full circle: the cycle repeats, the cogs turn, and the machine that is War continues churning on.