'War Machine' review: Brad Pitt satire lacks killer instinct

Netflix enlists its biggest star yet, but the satire never quite snaps to attention.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Brad Pitt goes to war -- if the bureaucrats will let him.


Ten-hut! Brad Pitt is back in uniform in "War Machine", a new anti-war satire from Netflix .

I wanted to love "War Machine". There's a lot of potential: Pitt is directed by David Michôd, who helmed the stunning "Animal Kingdom" and blisteringly sparse "The Rover". Anthony Michael Hall, Ben Kingsley and Meg Tilly enlist for excellent (although pretty fleeting) performances. The music is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. And it takes aim at the complex and troubling conflict in Afghanistan, a situation ripe for scathing satire. Unfortunately it's not quite worthy of a medal.

Pitt's fictional General McMahon is based on real-life Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was unceremoniously relieved of his senior post in Afghanistan in 2010 after he and his men made the mistake of criticising then-President Barack Obama in front of a Rolling Stone reporter. Journalist Michael Hastings' article and subsequent book "The Operators" inspired this film.

By fictionalising these true-life events, the flick goes into battle against the absurdity, hypocrisy and bureaucracy that goes into a war no-one knows how to fight -- a war in which the weapons are leaks, PR scoops and incomprehensible diagrams on whiteboards rather than bullets and bombs.

"War Machine" never quite snaps to attention. Michôd's script dishonorably discharges the old filmmaking maxim to show rather than tell. The 2-hour movie leans heavily on an intrusive and interminable voice-over that introduces every character and explains every little detail. For the first third the film, Pitt's newly-arrived General wanders around Afghanistan sitting in rooms while the voice-over explains who he's talking to and and what's going on, rather than giving the scenes and the characters permission to speak.

The template for this voice-over-driven storytelling is Martin Scorsese's urgent and compelling montage editing in classics like "Goodfellas" and "Casino". There the voice-over is packed with fascinating detail that draws you into the world on screen, paired with visuals that counterpoint and challenge the narration. "War Machine" isn't sharp enough in its juxtaposition of voice-over and visuals, and it could do with a bit of Scorsese's dizzying urgency. Pitt's General spends most of the flick growing increasingly frustrated that nothing is happening -- and I know the feeling.

"War Machine" reminded me of Netflix's other real-life drama "Narcos", also saddled with an overly explanatory voice-over. Neither is quite dramatic enough to work as a piece of fiction, but they're just fictionalised enough to make you wonder how much is reliably true.

There are some neat satirical touches in "War Machine", like a scene in which the General learns Afghan farmers are still growing heroin because they're not allowed to compete with the American cotton trade, or when Pitt tries and fails to explain the situation to angry marines. But the movie lacks the sharp, cutting edge of good satire and it's missing details that might teach you something about war.

It doesn't help that Pitt musters a distractingly oddball performance, going straight to full-auto compared with his earlier uniformed turns in the war-weary "Fury" or even the gleefully bloodthirsty "Inglourious Basterds". His General is a glowering, growling caricature with a silverback's waddle and a cartoonish squint. Pitt's eccentric interpretation marches out of step with the more subtle performances around him, like Alan Ruck's oily civilian mandarin or Meg Tilly's restrained turn as the General's wife.

The fluctuating tone veers most wildly in the final third when "War Machine" finally becomes a war movie. Specifically, it turns into Netflix's other recent military film "Sand Castle", a worthy but familiar look at US troops in Iraq.

Headlined by arguably the most A-list star Netflix has yet recruited, "War Machine" is the most high-profile Netflix movie to date. It's not a total bomb -- stick with it for a genuinely laugh-out-loud closing salvo -- but it won't be doing battle with streaming rival Amazon at the Oscars.

"War Machine" is on Netflix everywhere now.

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