It takes about an hour into Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs” to realize the true colors of the film’s subjects. As they discuss a deal to arm Afghani soldiers with millions of bullets, top Army officials look across their table.
On the left is a man who possesses an everyman-style swagger, a sharp knack for business and a reservoir of nobility should he choose to tap into it. On his right is a man who seems to have little in the way of conscience or prudence, a cunning manipulator who cares little for the body count left in his wake so long as his bank account grows. And then beneath these pictures of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sit their respective counterparts in the film, actors Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli.
“War Dogs” is the Bush-Cheney partnership reimagined as a buddy comedy of hapless warmongering and reckless profit hunting. If ever there were an indication that the military-industrial complex had officially jumped the shark, it would be this story during this war. As a way to offset accusations of cronyism, the Pentagon set up an online database that allowed all contractors access to military deals. While industry giants still nabbed the biggest deals, Efraim’s business strategy stems from picking up the crumbs – “like a rat,” in his own words.
Phillips along with co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic would have us believe that the company Efraim lures David into partnering with him, AEY Inc., is the equivalent of the geniuses of “The Big Short” who spotted the leak in the mortgage market. (The film certainly features gratuitous grafts from Adam McKay’s stylistic masterstrokes to make the parallels, too – down to the freeze-frames and quotation-fronted chapter divisions.) But while Phillips may have that film on the brain, the dark heart of “War Dogs” bears a far greater resemblance to another film about fools who wrecked the economic futures of hard-working people.
That film, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” David and Efraim are not crusaders against a corrupt system like Michael Burry or Steve Baum. They are cut from the same cloth as Jordan Belfort and Hill’s own creation Donnie Azoff. AEY scraped the bottom of the barrel in the arms market much like Stratton Oakmont found wells of money by exploiting the unglamorous penny stocks.
“War Dogs” does not escape or transcend the temptations of luxuriating a bit too long in the duo’s “sorry not sorry” exploitation of a foreign policy blunder they both despise. When donning the clearer lenses of retrospection, it’s easy to look back at the mistakes, lies and hubris of the ’00s and root for a little karmic justice against the people or institutions responsible for our current mess.
Falling into similar traps and narrative devices as the films to which it so obviously owes a debt feels less like a failure of imagination and more like the statement of an unsavory truth. These stories feel the same because they show the inevitable consequence of encouraging Americans to look the other way and just accept the product shoved down their throats without questions. Be they financial derivatives or nation-building exercises, rational thinking eventually exposes the folly of preposterous propositions.
Well … at least that’s what the idealists like myself would like to think. Phillips manages to avoid clean-cut corners and definitive moral triumphs, even as the script of “War Dogs” slaps a redemption narrative for David onto its final act. (Efraim, meanwhile, starts taking the journey of his cinematic hero Tony Montana a little too seriously.) The ultimate conclusion about this bizarre system that turned a pair of twenty-something hucksters into bonafide warlords falls short of cynicism. It lands somewhere between ambiguous and just plain exhausted.
“Everybody knows the dice are loaded,” intones Leonard Cohen over the roll of the final credits. So if we all know after watching “War Dogs,” why can’t we just roll with a new pair of dice? B+ /