Netflix Movie of the Week: Brad Pitt cranks up the “War Machine”

War Machine

There’s been a lot of talk among film critics lately about how, while Netflix TV shows get a lot of attention, the original movies released every week seem to fall through the cracks. And that’s a shame given that Netflix has been busy buying up a lot of good indie movies at film festivals like Sundance and Toronto.

So, I want to contribute in my own small way to highlighting the original movies that Netflix (and, to a lesser extent, other sites like Hulu and Amazon Prime) premiere each week. The “Netflix Movie of the Week” will showcase a worthy original streaming film that could use your attention. The rest is up to you.

Although, you may have actually heard of this week’s Netflix Movie of the Week, “War Machine.” It is by far the biggest movie Netflix has ever released, a $60 million fact-based satire of the war in Afghanistan starring none other than Brad Pitt. It’s clearly Netflix’s attempt to show it can compete with the big studios, not just the indie distributors.

Think of “War Machine” as the inversion of all those military satires like “M*A*S*H” or “Catch-22,” the ones where an oddball group of soldiers create all sorts of mischief while avoiding the watchful eye of a stern commander. This time, it’s the commander who’s the oddball.

Gen. Glenn McMahon (Pitt) is a gravel-voiced alpha male — he even jogs like a silverback gorilla. Hired in 2009 to oversee forces in Afghanistan, McMahon barks that he’s finally going to win the unwinnable war, launching a counterinsurgency campaign that he firmly believes will win the hearts and the minds of the good guys while taking out the bad guys. As if it were that easy to distinguish between the two.

Outside of McMahon’s fanatically loyal inner circle (including Anthony Michael Hall as a rage-fueled chief of staff and Topher Grace as a savvy PR guy), nobody else believes the war is winnable — not the politicians, not the U.S. soldiers, not even Afghan president Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), who would rather just watch TV. They all just want the whole thing over with.

A fictionalized version of “The Operators,” the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings’ account of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disastrous efforts in Afghanistan, “War Machine” had a lot of potential to satirize the folly and hubris that got America mired in Afghanistan. But writer-director David Michod’s screenplay doesn’t trust the viewer with subtleties, instead hammering obvious points over and over.

A relentless voiceover by a journalist meant to be a stand-in for Hastings (Scoot McNairy) grows tiresome. And when the film tries to shift from goofy wartime satire to serious wartime drama in the last act, it becomes just like any other recent war movie.

As a result, it does the unthinkable, somehow finding McMahon’s folly to be almost noble — “Hey, at least he tried to win the war, unlike those meddling bureaucrats in D.C.” Which is not where “War Machine” is supposed to go — in a way, the movie ends up as seduced by the same platitudes as McMahon is.

Although, I will say, there a surprise celebrity cameo in the last 10 seconds of the movie that almost makes the rest of it worthwhile.


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