Movie still from 2017's "War Machine."

War Machine June 2, 2017        

Because his most accessible and commercially successful films, such as Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), or Moneyball (2011), have seen him playing it straight, sometimes the image of him being the closest thing to a modern-day Robert Redford have overcome his more distinctive performances, like in 12 Monkeys (1995), Burn After Reading (2008), or Inglourious Basterds (2009).  Given his massive celebrity status and his enviable talents behind and in front of the camera I’m unabashed in my conviction that Pitt is one of the great movie stars of his generation. 

 

But currently, times are tough for Pitt and his aforementioned, lesser equivalent. Depp’s renown has been soiled by abuse allegations. Pitt’s standing as the other half of Brangelina, formerly the most famous couple in world, has come screeching to a halt, his marriage and his relationship with his children tarnished by alcoholism. Once Hollywood’s hottest commodities, both appear to be in the midst of midlife crises. For Pitt, such is ever-apparent in War Machine (2017), a project backed by the actor’s production company and distributed by streaming giant Netflix. The film is touted as a satirical war film, covering the rocky relationship between a hyper-masculine military general tasked with easing the U.S. out of conflict with Afghanistan and his governmental superiors.  

 

In War Machine, Pitt is the general.  But he’s also the worst thing about the film. Watching him, you can vaguely sense inner turmoil manifesting itself into a performance so exaggerated it makes Divine’s characterization in Pink Flamingos (1972) seem riddled with subtlety.  His miscasting is pronounced, often derailing the movie as a whole.  And such is disappointing, since the film is, for the most part, a sharp comment on male fragility and the dangers it can put forth when it’s housed in a position of power.

 

The film is based on the disaster that was the tenure of Stanley A. McChrystal, a respected general who was assigned to lead all forces in Afghanistan in 2009.  Though his supervisors emphasize that his main mission is to essentially clean up the messes left by his predecessors and quietly lead soldiers out of the conflict, McChrystal, renamed Glen McMahon in the movie, craves celebrity. He's a believer in the patriotic glory of a bullet-ridden showdown, and, from the minute he’s hired, treats the situation, already naturally retreating, as if it were on the verge of bubbling over. This, of course, only generates more problems, especially since McMahon’s hunger for notoriety is so great he at one point hires a Rolling Stone reporter to profile him.

 

Undoubtedly McMahon is a fascinating character — he runs seven miles every day, only eats seven meals a week, and sleeps just four hours a night.  He’s lived and breathed the life of an army man since the 1970s. His ego is so elephantine it weighs down what could be a level head. But portrayed by Pitt and we see a cartoon, at least until the last act of the movie manages to humanize him.  Pitt’s incessant grunts, lowered register, and generally grizzled exterior are all forced — the role would be better suited for an actor more believably intimidating, like Billy Bob Thornton or a young Clint Eastwood. The miscasting is bothersome, particularly because it amplifies the more satirical moments of the film so strikingly the overarching movie seems tonally uneven.  It has a lot to say about how one person’s lack of humility can lead to ruin for an entire populace, and a lot of those messages are smartly delivered. But Pitt’s presence creates a mirage of bumpiness.

 

Fortunately, the writing and direction by David Michôd is intelligent enough to keep everything from flying off the rails — Pitt’s unease in the role doesn’t stop the commentary and the plentiful black humor from affecting us.  One just wishes War Machine had a sounder lead.  Then we might be confronted with a modern-day Dr. Strangelove (1964) rather than a relatively entertaining two-hour feature.  B

DIRECTED BY

David Michôd

 

STARRING

Brad Pitt

Ben Kingsley

Anthony Michael Hall

Anthony Hayes

Tilda Swinton

Emory Cohen

RJ Cycler

Topher Grace

Meg Tilly

 

RATED

R

 

RELEASED IN

2017

 

RUNNING TIME

2 Hrs., 2 Mins.

B

rad Pitt has been doing what Johnny Depp has for decades, only most aren’t so poised to talk about it.  Whereas Depp has built his name and his reputation on almost exclusively idiosyncratic, sometimes mind-numbingly caricatured performances, Pitt has deftly balanced roles underlined either in pretty-boy suavity or in comprehensive eccentricity.