Based on the book The Operators by Michael Hastings, Netflix’s War Machine is the story of a highly ambitious US General whose hubris leads him down a path of glory with no prize at the finish line. Failures and shortcomings of counterinsurgency as a whole, the unspoken US knack for stirring up conflict then claiming to be the best at stopping it, and all the underlying principles that guide the war in the Middle East get put on display.
A satirical critique punctuated with bleak darkness, War Machine observes the absurdity of war and all the accompanying theatrics of the war in the Middle East. Focusing on the occupation of Afghanistan, the film runs through a typical cycle of arrogance, ambition, and the distribution of the price paid for keeping a redundant machine well-oiled.
Brad Pitt is the lifeblood of this film. His character, Glen McMahon, is a no-nonsense US General with an appetite for results. Loosely based on the story of General Stanley McChrystal, the character embodies a strict and single-minded view of victory, along with the belief that certain goals are achieved by pushing harder. Sometimes it’s so much easier to plow forward instead of adjusting to a course.
While there’s a lot to be admired in chasing win after win, the film takes a long hard look at the cost of blind ambition and how the decision makers of the world aren’t always the best people to be making the decisions. In fact, we often hand-select the very worst people for the position, even if we know they’ll work hard at it. So, as long as there’s oil in the war machine, it’s considered well-functioning, without regard to the actual resulting function.
Pitt wears his character like a costume draped on his shoulders. His expressions and mannerisms constantly signal the insecurities of those in charge of our security and the discipline of those hard-headed individuals who toughen themselves for our sake.
The theatrics of each character playing out their beliefs about the war and their place in it meld beautifully with the absurdist point of view through which the film uses to watch the war. Each character decorating the
General’s posse orbited him like planets to a sun. In other words, they felt like results of his own thinking as opposed to individual soldiers, meaning they had no character arcs or challenges to work with; they were simply branches of their General.
The narration uses the voice of The Rolling Stones writer whose article contributed to the firing of the General. The writing was fairly on the nose, opting to match the true absurdity of the situation as opposed to more subtle forms of satire. Although some of the comedy leaned more towards comedic shtick than prodding contemplation, it shined a light on what needed to be shown.
The shifting tone between bleak war torn reflections and hilariously absurd sequences created a sort of middle ground between biting satire and an all-too-real mirror for us to see our own participation in the song and dance of pointless conflict and displaced aggression.
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