With its inherent contradictions and absurdities, war has always provided satirists with a target-rich environment. Fighting men themselves have a keenly developed sense of black comedy and love to joke about futility, the opaque nature of military jargon, the obliviousness of their officers, and a thousand other bedevilments.
But the limp new Netflix satirical comedy War Machine, which casts Brad Pitt as a barely fictionalized version of our former top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is an exercise in shallow ignorance. To adequately satirize something, it’s preferable to have some understanding of it, and writer-director David Michôd has none whatsoever. Instead he combines lazy, broad jokes — such as a running gag about how people keep addressing a guy named Richard as “Dick” — with an analysis of military history that is about as informed as that of the average college sophomore who owes his knowledge on the subject to whatever Vietnam movies he’s seen.
Pitt plays McChrystal (here renamed McMahon) with a Popeye squint and a gruff voice suggesting Jon Stewart doing George C. Scott’s General Patton. Everything about his manner screams: Check out what an idiot this guy is. Offscreen narration by the Rolling Stone writer who would seal the general’s fate (here called Sean Cullen, though in reality his name was Michael Hastings, and he died in a 2013 car accident) introduces McMahon as a swaggering fool with a completely unfounded confidence in himself. Michôd belabors the point by showing McMahon being unable to figure out an electric razor and speaking in vapid platitudes. “Came here to win!” Pitt mutters crazily, and “This . . . is a war!” Sean explains to us, in the patronizing, world-weary voice of a half-smart pacifist at an anti-war demonstration, that counterinsurgency can never win because, obviously, you can’t force peace on people. Michôd brings the point home by showing an Afghan kid socking a soldier in the groin.
Michôd, an Australian who made 2010’s Animal Kingdom, seems barely acquainted with even the basics of his subject, such as when military men salute or wear headgear, and all over the film there are strangely discordant touches, such as when McMahon makes a joke about turning off Fox News, even though the TV nearby is clearly showing CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin. The director inexplicably casts the millennial actor John Magaro as a full colonel though he is easily a decade too young for the part and makes Cullen, the ostensible voice of reason in the piece, sound like a preening, sneering ass by giving him dialogue like, “These guys thought they were the most important guys in the world . . . maybe they assumed I thought they were as amazing as they did.” It’s not a great idea to portray a freelance magazine writer as dripping with condescension for men fighting the Taliban.
Nor does the movie gain much by stopping dead so that Tilda Swinton, as a German lawmaker, can lecture McMahon for several minutes on his “fetish for completion” and “delusional ambitions.” Michôd falls into the most obvious trap awaiting the satirist: Never let the mask slip and resort to hectoring the audience in earnest. If your irony is working, there’s no need to stamp your foot and explain that the characters you are lampooning are misguided. Michôd follows up this woeful sequence by having his narrator say, of McMahon’s outlook, “Some people call this insanity.”
War Machine lands a few jabs on President Obama, who appears in a clip from his West Point speech and is also portrayed in passing by Reggie Brown. McMahon is shown being dumbfounded when he sees Obama, on TV, simultaneously announcing that he is beefing up the armed forces in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops and that he will start bringing them home in only 18 months, thus signaling to the bad guys his lack of seriousness. Later in the film, having met just once with McMahon, Obama summons the general to a meeting aboard Air Force One, then leaves him standing embarrassed on the tarmac after a quick handshake. More thinking along these lines would have expanded the film’s scope and perhaps nudged it closer to the tone of In the Loop (2009), a left-wing Iraq War satire that was caustically funny (and led to the HBO series Veep). As it is, however, War Machine is a vacuous gesture of contempt that says nothing more interesting than “Can you believe how dumb and arrogant these military guys are?”