War Machine (2017) stars Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a fictional commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009. It is a savage parody of General Stanley McChrystal and the U.S. and Coalition War in Afghanistan, based on The Operators (2012) by Michael Hastings, a sleazy reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed. Hastings’ hit piece on General McChrystal in Rolling Stone led to his resignation as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and retirement from the Army in 2010.
The film opens as hard-fighting General Glen McMahon arrives in Afghanistan to whip things into shape and finally win the war. The narrator tells us General McMahon is a soldier’s soldier, a West Point and Ranger School graduate who eats once a day, gets four hours of sleep a night, and runs seven miles every morning.
His staff includes a civilian press adviser, Matt Little (Topher Grace), X.O. Colonel Cory Staggart (John Magaro), Major General Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), “tech whiz” Andy Moon (RJ Cyler), Navy Seal Major Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes), Admiral Simon Ball (Daniel Betts), and Sergeant Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen). Together, they believe they can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
General McMahon quickly learns he’s up against some tougher opponents than the Taliban, including obstinate government officials, reluctant NATO allies, and a hostile press. Even U.S. soldiers, given voice by Marine Corporal Billy Cole (Lakeith Stanfield), are skeptical of their mission and its chances for success. McMahon must use unconventional tactics and the force of his personality to fully implement his grand plan for victory.
In the military, commanders are given a high degree of discretion over their troops. They are accustomed to getting what they want and not hearing the word “no.” Like Colonel Joshua Chamberlain says in the movie Gettysburg (1993), there’s nothing so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield. So it’s easy to see how frustrated generals can be when constantly butting heads with civilian authorities who think they know the general’s job better than he does. War Machine artfully and humorously depicts this situation.
Every character in War Machine is portrayed authentically, and the actors and actresses perform marvelously. With a few lines, Ben Kingsley, who plays former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, perfectly captures the sardonic indifference of a powerless man supposedly holding a position of power.
“I am behaving like a leader,” he tells McMahon after McMahon urges him to endorse his offensive in Helmand Province. “I am as unavailable to you as your own president.” It’s a particularly biting insult, considering how President Obama brushed off McMahon on the runway earlier in the film. Moments later, he says, “You have my approval, general. We both know it was never really mine to give. But I thank you for inviting me to participate in the theater of it all.”
Meg Tilly gives another great performance as McMahon’s wife, Jeannie, who has seen her husband less than 30 days a year for the past eight years. Practically strangers, the distance between them is palpable. Yet there is a genuine attempt to remain close and supportive. So many military spouses have gone through a similar experience, particularly at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She puts a human face on the cost of General McMahon’s drive to succeed.
In the end, General McMahon flies off alone to meet the U.S. President and is forced to resign as a result of negative publicity from an article in Rolling Stone. A new team, led by a tough, hard-fighting general lands in Afghanistan to take his place.
In less capable hands, War Machine had the potential to be another Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) or Lions for Lambs (2007), contemporary critiques of the War on Terror that just come across as rushed and ham-fisted. I haven’t read The Operators, so I don’t know how closely the film adheres to the book, but writer and director David Michôd nailed it as far as I’m concerned. Hollywood can learn a thing or two from this Netflix production.