An entire subgenre of American pop culture specializes in the military spoof; and, from Joseph Heller's iconic Catch 22, to Stripes, 1941, Dr. Strangelove and Hot Shots, the battlefield is littered with comedies (good, bad and biting) mining the tragedy of war and, often, the ineptitude of those who wage it.
Now comes War Machine (Netflix, May 26), starring Brad Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, a fictionalized version of four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal—the former commander of international forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal, who enjoyed an otherwise illustrious military career, resigned in 2010 following a scandalous expose published in Rolling Stone revealing widespread disdain for then-President Barack Obama and other officials in the administration. The picture painted in the piece, by freelance journalist Michael Hastings, was of a hubristic warfighter surrounded by officers more loyal to their boss than civilian leadership.
War Machine, written and directed by David Michod, was based on Hastings' book The Operators, and tees off in the months preceding the magazine profile as a reporter Sean Cullen (a fictional Hastings played by Scoot McNairy) bears witness to the off-kilter general and his staff.
"Off-kilter" would be a good way to describe the movie as a whole. It's more goofy than incisive, relying too much on Pitt's physical performance, which combines Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys with Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine from Inglourious Basterds.
While the tragicomedic theme is well taken, it never rises to the level of sophistication necessary for satire. The exception is Sir Ben Kingsley, whose portrayal of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a spot-on send up of the crafty leader, whose half-assed power position gets closest to striking at the dark heart of the Afghan mess.
"You have my approval, general," Karzai tells McMahon when asked for permission to conduct an operation. "We both know it was never really mine to give, but... I thank you for inviting me to participate in the 'theater' of it all."
Too bad the rest of War Machine couldn't have been as theatrical.