Satire is generally difficult to pull off in film. The best are ones that unapologetically go all in with the mocking of their subjects, while successfully walking a fine line regarding tone, still clearly making their point, and creating emotional resonance with the audience.
This is especially true of political satire as films, such as how Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and, to note something more recent, Adam McKay’s The Big Short boldly went after their subjects with brilliant aggression, while succeeding to walk the fine tonal line in order to make their points in both humorous and bleak ways.
Now, Netflix has tried its hand at political satire with its new original film, War Machine. Written and directed by David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover), the film is loosely based on Michael Hastings’ accounts of the firing of Stanley McChrystal (portrayed by Brad Pitt, though the character is named Glen McMahon) as the leader of American forces in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010. For the most part, War Machine succeeds as a solid political satire, despite many issues that prevent it from being great.
The biggest success of War Machine is the potential of its screenplay. While it takes some time for the script to find its footing, in the midst of useless exposition that goes nowhere, Michôd’s writing eventually becomes fearless, sharp and incredibly witty as he not only tears apart McChrystal (and his fictional counterpart), but also going after the effects of hubris in war, and the issues that come with counterinsurgency. He has no issues with mocking all of this, as well as showing the detrimental effects of it, while backing himself up with facts, as provided in the narration (which, like War Machine, was also produced by Brad Pitt’s production company).
With that said, while The Big Short succeeded at using those facts to provide further and harsher bite at the chaos, War Machine mostly uses it as more exposition with very little bite. This almost makes the information useless, besides providing extra context for those who don’t understand certain concepts presented in the film. It never adds to create that more powerful emotional resonance like The Big Short did. However flawed it may be at creating an emotional response from the audience, Michôd’s screenplay mostly succeeds when it comes to addressing the absurdity and unapologetically creating a mockery of it.
The performances all around are also quite good. Brad Pitt, of course, steals the show by calling back to his performance in Inglourious Basterds to depict the idiotic and egotistical character of McMahon. Notable actors such as Tilda Swinton and Ben Kingsley only appear briefly, almost to the point of being a cameo, but they do great work here as always. The most notable surprise and highlight, however, is Topher Grace as press advisor Matt Little. While he doesn’t get much to do, his energetic work is one of the highlights of the film. Other notable work comes from Will Poulter, RJ Cyler, Lakeith Stanfield, Anthony Michael Hall, and Alan Ruck who all bring lots of life to the film alongside the rest of the main cast.
The film’s most fatal flaw is in Michôd’s direction. While his writing most certainly shows potential, it sometimes falls apart in practice. The biggest thing to note is how tonally uneven the film is. A good hour is spent mocking the situation and these people, but once we get to the final 40 minutes of the film, the tonal shifts, which make the film bleaker and more character driven, become increasingly jarring. The final act of the film works really well on its own, but it never fits as well with the rest of it. This takes a lot away from any emotional resonance with the audience, just like the missed opportunities in the Big Short-like narration. Perhaps if the film gave itself more room to gracefully shift from one tone to another, the execution would be much more effective.
War Machine is a pretty solid satire that checks off most of the key elements that make one great. It’s really sharp, witty and hilarious, with some great performances to back it up, including a surprising turn from Topher Grace. However, the film misses some significant opportunities to create a strong and powerful emotional resonance by really mishandling its tonal shifts as well as mimicking the use of narration in The Big Short, but failing to understand why it worked so well. This should hopefully pave the way for stronger Netflix original films in the future, but for now, at least it’s not as misguided as The Most Hated Woman in America, and nowhere near as bad as Adam Sandler’s films for the streaming service.
(Featured Image: War Machine, Netflix)