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Review: War Machine

War Machine
05.22.2017
8 10

PLOT: A four-star General (Brad Pitt) is brought to Afghanistan in order to finally end the war, only to find his personal ambitions do not mesh with the reality of the conflict, or the administration’s goals in that area.

REVIEW: At long last, Netflix has got themselves a bona fide, big budget feature that one wouldn't hesitate to call an actual film. While some of their movies have been good, such as their acquisition, BEASTS OF NO NATION, for the most part their original banner has produced low-brow Adam Sandler comedies, or things that seem just below feature quality. Movies like SAND CASTLES and PEE WEE’S HOLIDAY occupy a weird middle ground. They’re not TV, but they wouldn’t really pass muster on the big-screen. Earlier this year, THE DISCOVERY proved they can produce movies that work in a theatrical context (not that they’ll ever be seen that way) but WAR MACHINE is a full-fledged, big-budget studio movie. With a $60 million price tag and a real star in the lead, it’s comparable to anything a studio might put out. In fact, the only way you’d know it’s not a studio feature is that the subject matter is so daring that none of them would really have the guts to do it.

Here, Brad Pitt plays a fictionalized version of General Stanley McChrystal, here named Glen McMahon. His whole Afghanistan misadventure is played for laughs - initially. Opting for a CATCH-22 like tone, where Pitt plays McMahon as a stiff-backed caricature, no doubt way sillier than the actual man was, WAR MACHINE, at first, is worrying. Writer-director David Michod (THE ROVER & ANIMAL KINGDOM) has nothing in his filmography to suggest an ease with comedy, and the movie never gets much further than being lightly amusing. But there’s an endgame here.

About 2/3 of the way into the movie, there’s a sequence that hints at what the actual plan in, when a grunt (a standout Keith Stanfield) has harsh words for McMahon’s idea of “heroic restraint”, and unfocused policy. Thus, is comes as no surprise when, following a booze-soaked trip through Europe with his unit, once Michod put the movie back in Afghanistan, the satiric tone is segued out, into a more serious depiction of the consequences of McMahon’s plan. Even though it’s a small part, Stanfield’s performance, along with Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s sparse score, are what anchor the film, and once the movie gets more serious, WAR MACHINE’s ultimate ambitions become clear.

In the lead, Pitt does all he can to subvert his movie-star good looks, with gray hair, a constant sour look on his face, and a hunched-over posture that starts off as indulgent, but becomes almost endearing. One thing that works in the movie’s favor is that you really do get the sense of camaraderie between Pitt’s McMahon and his unit, which includes Anthony Michael Hall, R.J Cyler and Topher Grace as his civilian publicist. Pitt’s playing a caricature, but as it goes on he’s allowed to become more-and-more human, especially once Meg Tilly shows up as his wife, with whom he’s barely able to relate having spent so much of their marriage apart.

Michod’s certainly pulled together an A-list crew both in front and behind the camera, with Alan Ruck, Scoot McNairy, and even Tilda Swinton all excellent. Ben Kingsley also contributes a memorable turn as Hamid Karzai, who's portrayal is mostly comedic. Michod's style is much more accessible here than it was in the occasionally confounding THE ROVER, making the movie easy to digest. And it’s a huge leap in quality for Netflix, with Dariusz Wolski’s 2:35:1 photography giving this a truly cinematic look, and I’m certain that it would play as well on the big-screen as it does at home, making it a bit of a shame that it won’t really get the opportunity to go theatrical. Then again, it would be a dicey commercial prospect under the best of circumstances. If Netflix really doubles down like they did here and continues to make more challenging, large canvas fare like this, their presence and a film-making unit should be celebrated. They’ve yet to produce a truly great film, but this is a very good one and the first real test for them. I’d say they’ve passed.

Source: JoBlo.com

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