Netflix takes its incursion into historically Hollywood-held territory to the next level with War Machine, a $60 million military satire starring Brad Pitt, written and directed by David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) and adapted from Michael Hastings' 2012 best seller The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan. The largest-scale production yet from the internet behemoth, the film appears certain to take new ground.
It's a thematically dense, tonally complex work to which some viewers may require time to acclimate. Fortunately, between its accessibility with the flick of a clicker and its running time topping two hours, that shouldn't prove a problem. The investment pays off with a singular, surprisingly affecting film experience.
War Machine is based on a book spawned by one of the most seismic pieces of journalism since Watergate: Hastings' 2010 Rolling Stone article "The Runaway General." A profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal (head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan) and his hard-partying inner circle, it reported remarks the career soldier made disparaging the Obama administration and resulted in his removal. One might expect the movie's take on McChrystal and the military to be critical. In fact, it's insightful, sympathetic and borderline affectionate.
Pitt gives a quirky, multifaceted performance as Gen. Glen McMahon. He plays the four-star force of nature as a human cartoon, underscoring his disconnect from reality. The White House knows the war is a lost cause. McMahon's real job is to wrap it up and put as positive a bow on it as possible. But he goes rogue, embracing the notion that the war can be won through counterinsurgency.
Scoot McNairy provides the narration, playing a young journalist standing in for Hastings. There's something slightly eerie about his work here, particularly if you knew Hastings, which I'm happy to say I did. The writer's family moved to Vermont when he was 16. He spent part of each year here, and we met in 2012. I found Hastings one of the gentlest, most generous souls I'd ever encountered. He died in a ghastly car crash the following year. Something in McNairy's look and manner of speech channels him uncannily.
Michôd's script covers a lot of ground and shifts nimbly between dark comedy and dead-eyed satire. Then there are the battle scenes. They're some of the most sobering in recent cinema.
The film performs a valuable service by revisiting the Rolling Stone piece. Reading it today, it's impossible to detect anything remotely meriting the treatment meted out by a prickly president. McChrystal enjoyed a drink and seeing his staff have a good time. Occasionally he exercised his right to free speech and said what he thought about his bosses. Look at the mess they've made in the Middle East. Think he may have had a point?
I asked Hastings' wife, Elise Jordan, for her takeaway. "Thanks for watching the film," she wrote via email. "Michael's work endures because he pointedly raised difficult questions and refused to provide easy answers. I'm glad this film brings his work to a wider audience."
The final scenes pack unexpected emotional power, and the closing sequence is a blast of pure brilliance. This is a movie with a most unusual mission: to mock the madness of modern war, to rewrite a recent chapter in American history and to repair the reputation of a most unusual man. It may be the craziest thing you'll see this year, but I suspect that, long before it's over, you'll surrender to its bizarre charm.