REVIEW: War Machine

30 05 2017

Admittedly, I am not that interested in how David Michod’s “War Machine” plays into cinema’s canon of films about the Middle Eastern conflicts of our century. I am, however, very interested in how it plays into Brad Pitt’s filmography over the last decade or so.

Pitt was once (and still is, to an extent) a major tabloid sex symbol with a charisma so potent that it could ensnare a co-star. His macho swagger could level city blocks in Hollywood. But now, he’s been playing a different type … over and over and over again. As General Glen McMahon, a lightly fictionalized version of infamously terminated General Stanley McChrystal, Pitt adds another chapter to what can most charitably be described as a moment of clarity. Some, less generously, might also call it a mid-life crisis.

McMahon follows in the footsteps of Billy Beane from “Moneyball,” Jackie Cogan from “Killing Them Softly,” and Ben Rickert from “The Big Short” – among other characters – as Pitt’s new favorite archetype. These ponderous veterans of their respective trades are straight shooters with a radical approach to their field greeted with skepticism by those still trapped by conventional wisdom. Gradually, they increase their risky maneuvers for personal vindication, only to meet fierce pushback from the established vanguard. And usually some kind of character flaw, usually pride, serves a major Achilles’ heel along the journey.

McMahon’s quest involves getting a broader sign-off on his counterintelligence strategy in Afghanistan, a cause for which he’s even willing to enlist a civilian PR director (Topher Grace’s Matt Little) in order to ruffle some feathers in the Obama administration. Michod mostly operates in a satirical mode to display his hubristic “hearts and minds” campaign, though “War Machine” has plenty of genuine moments of real introspection about America’s conflicted role in enduring conflict.

Perhaps to give the proceedings some groundings in actual war, the third act takes a huge detour into actual armed combat with characters we haven’t received enough information on to feel invested in. We do, however, have plenty to intellectualize the United States’ peacekeeping and democracy-spreading operations through McMahon. This comes from both the movie itself and everything Brad Pitt brings to the role with an earned stoicism and world-weariness – but a penchant for innovating and retooling moribund strategies. B

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