The tone of the Netflix original movie, War Machine is set in the first narrative lines:
“Ah, America… you beacon of composure and proportionate response, you bringer of calm and goodness to the world! What do you do when the war you’re fighting just can’t be won in any possible meaningful sense? Well obviously, you sack the guy not winning it and you bring in some other guy.”
The sarcastic, world-weary voice we hear is the actor Scoot McNairy as “Sean Cullen,” a fictionalized version of Rolling Stone journalist, Michael Hastings. The movie is inspired by Hastings’ book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.
It’s the story of General Stanley A. McChrystal, the commanding general of COIN (counterinsurgency) in Afghanistan from June 15, 2009, to June 23, 2010. In the movie, McChrystal is called “Glen McMahon,” presumably for legal reasons, and played by Brad Pitt who maintains the sardonic tone of the movie by distorting his face into a half grimace of warrior-hardened concentration. Pitt reminds us in every scene of the absolute, steely resolve of this strange, delusional man. And Pitt’s production company Plan B worked with Australian filmmaker, David Michôd, who wrote and directed the movie. The commitment of the actor to the production, manifests in his curious, comically sad portrayal of the General.
The voice of our narrator speaks uncommon sense as he explains:
“In the good old days, wars were fought between nation-states, guys in uniform, like Nazis and stuff… Whenever you find you’ve invaded a place you probably shouldn’t have, you find yourself fighting against just regular people, in regular people clothes. These guys are called ‘insurgents’ basically they’re just guys who picked up weapons, because so would you if someone invaded your country.”
Our General McMahon is portrayed with a bit of sympathy in War Machine, while our narrator provides us harshly realistic commentary. At times, this commentary feels heavy-handed and obvious, perhaps a bit too on the nose:
“Funnily enough,” the narrator tells us, “insurgencies are next to impossible to defeat. You can’t win the trust of a country by invading it… You can’t build a nation at gunpoint”
There is plenty of show to go with the tell, as we witness an innocent child carelessly murdered by soldiers throwing an explosive blindly into a cluster of buildings. The general instructs a soldier to bestow a small brick of what must be afghan currency, to the grieving father. This scene is much more powerful than any series of narrated commentary. A stronger hand in editing some of the narration would have produced a more powerful statement overall, as demonstrated in scenes like these.
War Machine touches on many terrible aspects of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. In one scene it is explained:
“You do what you can to stimulate the economy,” as the director pulls back from McMahon and we see the bright blossoms of an opium poppy field. Ironically, these same fields are forbidden by the Taliban, yet encouraged by U.S. military.
The movie’s sympathy towards the General’s confused soldiers is reiterated in a scene between McMahon and his men. A Marine asks in bewilderment about a medal given for “courageous restraint.” The General has no clear explanation of how such an honor is bestowed or how such a moment of restraint can be defined, and replies:
“That is the job.”
We almost pity the General for his helplessness. He is truly acting as a machine, according to rules and regulations that he cannot as well as will not bother to understand.
The theme of the movie seems to be, that this kind of political quagmire and disastrous foreign-policy is caused simply by the egoism of certain military men, by a distinctly war-like narcissism. About the possibility of “winning the war” and quelling an insurgency, our narrator tells us that, “For Glen, nobody’s ever done it right.”
This message is spelled out for us in the character played by Tilda Swinton, a German politician, attending a press conference with General McMahon. She says, beginning timidly yet concluding boldly:
“I question your sense of self.”
She tells him she believes the COIN mission to be for his “personal ambition” that has not been “kept in check.”
She is accusing him of being mentally unstable and given the definition of mental illness as one repeating the same action while expecting different results, we must agree. Yet unfortunately, this mental illness is not confined to the mind of a single or even a few men, but to a nation.
The sometimes sage, mostly sardonic portrayal of President Karzai by Ben Kingsley, is pitch perfect. He quickly understands the General’s “new direction” as identical to the old direction, and he tells him so. When General McMahan invites president Karzai to tour the country with him, Karzai responds, “I have already seen the country”.
Near the end of the film, when things start to really fall apart for the General, he requests an audience with Karzai who has a head cold and is in bed laughing, while watching the movie Dumb and Dumber, another not so subtle illustration on the puppet-dictator page of the C.I.A. foreign policy playbook. Karzai listens to the General’s request for his help and declines graciously yet firmly, without irony:
“Thank you for inviting me to participate in the theater of it all.”
His deadpan delivery is chilling.
The movie’s brief portrayal of President Obama is also restrained, yet not without inherent rebuke. Obama is seen only from the back as he first ignores the General, after McMahon has made considerable sacrifices in his schedule in order to meet with him. Eventually, Obama joins the General but only for a photo op, encouraging him to smile.
One of the most affecting scenes includes the General, an interpreter and some of the local Afghan men. McMahon tries to assure the people that though his soldiers carry machine guns, wear uniforms and speak a strange language, they are there to protect and help them. The sad irony is underscored beautifully, as the interpreter gives an Afghan man’s reply several times:
“Please leave now.”
No narration is necessary.
Another scene shows what a pathetic character the General is. He is with his wife at their 30-year wedding anniversary dinner. She tells him she’s realized that they have spent less than thirty days per year together for the last eight years of their marriage. Hearing this only annoys him and she is quick to dismiss it as “nothing.” We get an idea of just how non-human and machine-like the General is.
It’s no spoiler that General McChrystal, here known as General McMahon, was forced to tender his resignation to President Obama after the story, “The Runaway General” by Michael Hastings, appeared in Rolling Stone.
After spending time with McMahan and his team, watching them drunkenly trade harsh criticism of the president and vice president, it might have seemed to the journalist, Sean Cullen, that the team was almost asking for some kind of retribution. Were they merely thumbing their noses at their superiors, or was this some kind of death wish on a subconscious level?
General McMahon’s brazen behavior in the presence of a member of the press, their prevailing attitude that they are above the law, is actually downplayed, considering this was part of Hastings’ expose. Just one more symptom of a much deeper psychopathology of the delusional American soldier? Could this “War Machine” be a collective disease, a malignant mindset with the uncanny tendency to completely ignore the astronomical, debilitating financial costs, the collateral damage, the devastation physically and psychologically to US soldiers, to innocent civilians and to supposed “insurgents?”
All for the sake of a collective mental illness, this insidious and contagious disease called the “War Machine” continues to infect like a virus. This seems to be the message of the movie.
At the close of the movie our narrator tells us he had hoped this would not be just “another celebrity fall from grace story,” but an exploration of “why we seem so desperate to be at war all the time.”
The director, David Michôd, has an understated touch for the most part, but with a total viewing time of just over two hours, and with an overstatement of Kafka-like government procedure, the film suffers. The message would have been stronger if delivered swifter.
Senator McCain spoke at a press conference in Afghanistan just a few days ago, on our Fourth of July, 2017, asking for thousands of additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan. And so the endless war continues. Let us reflect upon history and the future, for as philosopher, George Santayana said:
“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
Our U.S. Senator celebrated our Independence Day in a sovereign nation thousands of miles from our country, a nation that we have occupied and decimated for longer than any other American war. Let us reflect on how Independence Day has become Intervention Day. And how the mindset of the American has become the “War Machine.”