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War Machine movie review: In which Brad Pitt plays an idiot to explosive success

War Machine movie review: Brad Pitt delivers a classic Brad Pitt performance in Netflix and director David Michod’s war satire. It’s a film that has the potential to change the industry forever - and it doesn’t even have to be any good.

movie reviews Updated: May 28, 2017 10:19 IST
Rohan Naahar
Ugh America: You can’t win a war at gunpoint, says Brad Pitt’s new Netflix-produced satire War Machine.
Ugh America: You can’t win a war at gunpoint, says Brad Pitt’s new Netflix-produced satire War Machine.

War Machine
Director - David Michod
Cast - Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Scoot McNairy, Topher Grace, Tilda Swinton
Rating - 3/5

No actor plays dimwits quite like Brad Pitt. And they aren’t just regular old dimwits: They’re the sort of bafflingly idiotic, all-star dimwits you couldn’t picture using a spoon properly, let alone carrying out assassinations and attempting blackmail – which is exactly the sort of debauchery they invariably find themselves neck deep in. The dimwits.

But there’s more to it than just how excellent he is at playing these characters. It’s what he does with them. He gives them a purpose. He puts them on a mission – keep in mind, it’s a mission they’re thoroughly ill-equipped to deal with – but in their empty little heads, overflowing with delusions of grandeur, they’re the experts.

I can never forget – despite my cripplingly hazy recall abilities – the film Burn After Reading, specifically the idiotic grin Pitt twists on his face moments before being shot in it, or Lt Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds, and his impeccably inept Italian accent (Goar-lah-mee). And while it can be argued with fair reason that the pikey from Snatch isn’t a dimwit – seeing as he turns out to be quite the scheming devil at the end – the fact that Pitt plays him as one throughout the movie should qualify him for this League of Extraordinary Gentle-idiots.

In War Machine, the new political satire from director David Michod, which also happens to be streaming giant Netflix’s biggest film yet, Pitt plays four-star General Stanley McMahon, based on the actual four-star General Stanley McChrystal. He is, like the characters I mentioned above, an utter dimwit. But not in the traditional sense.

Like those characters, General McMahon has his idiosyncrasies – an exaggerated accent, and the most comically memorable run (you read that correctly) since Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. But beneath the doofus exterior, he is, like Chad from Burn After Reading, Aldo the Apache from Inglourious Basterds, a man utterly out of his element, controlled - unbeknownst to him - by larger (and considerably more intelligent) organisations.

In War Machine, that organisation is the US Army.

McMahon’s sent to Afghanistan at the tail end of the war – which has, by most accounts, been a complete PR nightmare – to bring it to an end. The whole operation has the look and feel of an elaborate crisis management exercise, complete with communications experts, media relations professionals, and not, as should ideally have been the case, a large-scale rebuilding of a nation destroyed by drugs and violence. Imagine if Salman Khan, after the revolving door of fiascos he has been involved in, instead of hiring professionals and launching his Being Human organisation, were to simply send his trusty bodyguard Shera to slap into silence anyone stupid enough to pose a challenge.

McMahon is neither an arrogant beefcake, and nor is he a devious mastermind. He is a relic of a bygone era, the flipside to the same indoctrination he is tasked with bringing down. Often, we describe individuals who excel in their fields by declaring that they were born to do it. Quick example: Roger Federer was born to play tennis, or, keeping with the theme, Brad Pitt was born to play dimwits. You get the gist. Similarly, General McMahon was born to lead a nation into war. He was born to win. His entire life has been spent in training to perform this duty. But tragically - and this is where it gets funny and the satire bit kicks in - there is little else he seems to be competent at. When the machinery behind the operation begins to kick in, and when the realisation strikes him that he isn’t as in control as he has led himself to believe, he unravels. Unfortunately for him, it happens in the presence of a particularly nosey journalist.

He seeks a friend in a jarringly (in a good way) foul-mouthed President Hamid Karzai, played by Ben Kingsley, who makes the baffling choice of giving the former Afghan President’s voice the cadence of – and I kid you not – the Dalai Lama. It is a choice made all the more perplexing because Hamid Karzai is a real person – and he most certainly does not sound like the Dalai Lama.

But that’s the sort of film War Machine is - bizarre, darkly funny, occasionally sharp - the sort of film in which characters don’t quite know what to do with their hands, or their mouths.

But this Brad Pitt performance is something else. In fact, it often overwhelms the film. I’ve now seen three features, one documentary, and one episode of TV directed by David Michod. Strangely, and rather impressively, there is nothing – not tone, theme, technique, or structure – that connects any of his works with each other, or to the man who directed them.

Which is good news, if you’re interested in watching the sort of movies you normally wouldn’t. Because War Machine certainly isn’t the sort of film too many people would pay to watch in a theatre. Which is telling, since it won’t be released in theatres at all. But we live in fortunate times – at least as far as movies are concerned.

There is a debate raging about the future of cinema and the role Netflix plays in it. While traditionalists are understandably up in arms (there is no denying that the moviegoing experience will suffer), for us, here in India, a country that rarely attracts art house fare (or even mainstream stuff, like Jordan Peele’s sleeper hit of the year Get Out), this could prove as industry-altering as the introduction of the PirateBay.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar