Brad Pitt’s Netflix movie, War Machine, probably didn’t play out as well as anyone hoped. Netflix doesn’t report box office or viewership, so there’s no real way to know how anything on the platform performs, but you can certainly tell, if you pay attention to entertainment/culture news, if something is popular. Take the way Stranger Things blew up, or Making a Murderer, Master of None, The Crown—really, most of their TV slate. (They’ve only just started axing stuff that isn’t performing well, including, sadly The Get Down.) War Machine failed to make that kind of splash, despite starring Pitt, which makes sense because it’s a pretty mediocre movie. It’s not all-the-way bad, but it’s not particularly good, either. Put it this way—it’s an alternative if the raunchy cursing of In The Loop isn’t to your taste.
Pitt stars as General Glen McMahon, a facsimile of real-life General Stanley McChrystal, the one-time head honcho in Afghanistan. War Machine loosely adapts Michael Hastings’ book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, which was, in turn, built off Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile of McChrystal, the one that resulted in McChrystal losing his command. The movie is narrated by Scoot McNairy as Sean Cullen, the fictionalized Hastings. McNairy is a FANTASTIC actor, but War Machine is like two-thirds voice over, and while it makes me want to listen to an audiobook recorded by McNairy, it doesn’t make for a satisfying movie.
We’re told almost everything, and shown very little. Pitt marches around, holding his body stiffly and slightly bow-legged—and, oddly, bow-armed—and he makes this face the entire time…
…which is an impressive face to be making, though not as impressive as the time Christian Bale made this face.
I think about Christian Bale making this face every day. pic.twitter.com/qyKJdNCZ8c— Sarah (@Cinesnark) May 10, 2017
Even though much of his performance is dancing along to the narration, Pitt makes it interesting. And when he does get to participate in scenes, War Machine picks up some energy and becomes interesting.
McMahon is the sort of general respected, maybe even loved, by the men in his command. He’s a soldier’s soldier and seems to believe sincerely in winning the war in Afghanistan, though the longer the movie goes on, the more that looks like hubris and a selfish desire for legacy than what’s really best for Afghanistan as a nation. One of the best scenes in the movie features Tilda Swinton as a German journalist, challenging McMahon on his desire to bring more troops back to Afghanistan to win the war. It’s a sharp scene, with two good actors going head-to-head with opposing goals, and if the whole movie was like that, War Machine really would be the best political satire since In The Loop.
But the whole movie is not like that. The narration soon returns and sucks the energy out of everything. Pitt doesn’t need to deliver a ton of dialogue to be effective (see also: Tree of Life), and much of his performance here is physical, since McMahon isn’t especially emotive—the scenes between McMahon and his basically estranged wife, Jeannie (Meg Tilly), are deliberately uncomfortable, they’re so awkward. But having the whole story recited to you is just not as interesting as seeing it play out. The best scenes don’t have narration, and Pitt is at his best when McMahon is actively engaged and not just bopping along to the voiceover.
War Machine isn’t a total loss, though. The scene with Swinton, everything with Jeannie, and a third-act action sequence featuring a squadron siege that goes horribly awry—that’s all pretty good stuff. And when McNairy turns up in person as Cullen to incredulously witness the antics of McMahon and his staff as they tour Europe, scrounging up support for their troop surge, there is a decently sharp satirical edge to the movie. It’s not In The Loop, but few things are. What $60 million bought Netflix is a good performance from Brad Pitt in a movie that is entirely watchable.
War Machine is on Netflix now. (So is In The Loop.)