The career of Stanley McChrystal, the general in charge of the war in Afghanistan in 2009, came to an abrupt end when a profile “The Runaway General” written by Michael Hastings appeared in Rolling Stone (and later as a book The Operators). Unflattering remarks about the US administration brought the straight-talking, gung-ho general undone and he handed in his resignation to President Obama.
David Michôd has written and directed his third feature, War Machine, based on the Afghan exploits of General McChrystal (now renamed Glen McMahon). Commissioned by Netflix and reportedly budgeted at $US60 million with Brad Pitt in the role of the general, it’s a film struggling to find a consistent tone.
Pitt gives it his all, contorting his face so much at times it makes him unrecognizable, while he channels the farcical style of George C Scott in Dr Strangelove and inwardly copies the bravura of Scott in Patton. It’s a wink-to-the-audience performance, matched only by the even slyer winking to the audience of Ben Kingsley as Harmid Karzai.
Problem is, with very few exceptions, they are the only two actors to do this and the rest of the cast play it as a straightforward war drama. There’s an impressive array of military hardware in the background, but very little action in the first 90 minutes.
General McMahon, known to his troops as “Genimal”, is told by the US administration he should not ask for more troops. Deciding to take on what sounds like an impossible task against the Taliban in Helmand Province, he asks for 40,000 extra troops, but gets 30,000. To round-up the remaining 10,000 he heads to Europe to wrest more support from the Coalition.
In Germany, Tilda Swinton pops up in a press conference as a “German politician” and gives one of those riveting, chameleon-like performances of hers, this time demolishing the Coalition’s war in Afghanistan in a couple of minutes. She plays it straight, but Michôd cuts back and forward to reaction shots of Pitt mugging it up on the podium. The acting styles clash badly and it underlines the problem Michôd has with the film’s tonal consistency.
Despite the issues (is this a comedy, a drama or a dramedy?), War Machine is an ambitious and often enthralling work. It’s odd, however, for the writer-director of the admirably consistent Animal Kingdom and The Rover to find himself, much like the Coalition forces, bogged down in unexpected territory.