In this Netflix only release, no punches are pulled in displaying the often contradictory methodologies that make up counterinsurgency operations. Between the NATO member states, those who were part of the “Coalition of the Willing,” and all the nations that have found people within their borders targets, many of us live in a country that indelibly changed as a result of the “War On Terror.”
Unlike many other movies about war where the point of view is that of the people on the front lines we are given an almost behind the scenes look that follows the general in charge of operations portrayed superbly by Brad Pitt. Eccentric general officer behavior, check! A leadership style that has more in common with corporate branding techniques than with successful battlefield strategy, check! Unchecked hubris wherein victory is assured, check!
While I undoubtedly wanted to enjoy this movie in the way that someone who has battlefield experience can, I cannot simply dismiss some glaring flaws. The direction felt as disjointed as the conflicting orders being given to the Marines in the film. At times it is military satire akin to “The Pentagon Wars.” Other times it’s an in your face gritty war movie. Yet other times it’s the story of a man, General Glen McMahon, the Glenimal, who is fighting an ideological conflict leaving him ill prepared to respond to the physical realities of the war.
This scattershot approach though does have some of the rounds hitting the mark, even if the grouping leaves something to be desired. I particularly appreciated the attention given to the little details, like the R.O.E. (rules of engagement,) and how that places service members in a position of constant vigilance, and of course the strain that comes with it. The paradox of being trained and frequently acting as an armed invader yet trying to win the hearts and minds using the rhetoric of a liberator. The inability to aim at the center mass of an ideology, yet the expectation of defeating it. War Machine does not shy away from revealing the many oxymora to be found in counterinsurgency warfare.
Another meritorious aspect of War Machine is in the interactions between its cast even if it does take some creative liberties. Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Hamid Karzai is an adept and quite entertaining foil to Brad Pitt’s General McMahon. The supporting cast of yes men whose greatest accomplishment is holding up the giant ego of the general is every bit the result of a system that prioritizes confidence rather than competence. The interactions between McMahon and his civilian counterparts show how little is understood about how to effectively fight an enemy utilizing asymmetrical warfare. Allen Ruck as Pat McKinnon (the US ambassador to Afghanistan) is a constant thorn in the side of McMahon, directly undermining him, and expertly demonstrating why a general is out of his element if he doesn’t understand how to see the political machinations of others. Another role of particular note is Kieth Stanfields Corporal Billy Cole, speaking from the perspective of the boots on the ground, even if it does go beyond what would be expected in a chain of command.
All in all, I enjoyed this film, but perhaps I have some bias as someone who has fought in the GWOT (Global War On Terror.) I’ll readily admit that I was looking forward to something like “The Pentagon Wars,” and perhaps with the latest boondoggle the F-35 we’ll eventually get another movie like that. Still, I was surprised in a good way. I really appreciated the honesty of the film from the condescending treatment of local militias and its results, to the “Insurgency Math” moment, and the revolving door function of new general officers replacing past failures. With its flaws and all we still have a film here that portrays modern conflict in a clear enough way for civilians to understand while at the same time being accurate enough that it passes inspection for former military personnel.