Netflix’s War Machine gets some details right about Afghanistan in 2009-2010, but it suffers greatly by portraying its central character as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster.
The film follows General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), who assumes command of coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2009. By ramping up counterinsurgency efforts, he aims to “win” a conflict that is otherwise seen to be unwinnable.
Anyone who has served in Afghanistan knows that international efforts were characterized by frustration and absurdities, which fortunately are sprinkled across the film— lackluster international partners, baffling rules of engagement, language barriers between Tajik-speaking Afghan National Army units and Pashtun villagers. Additionally, the script wisely captures the self-righteousness and hubris of those in the commander’s inner circle.
At the core of the story is General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), a baffling, over-the-top caricature who speaks in a gravelly drawl and appears to suffer from rigor mortis. The film would have been far more effective if McMahon was played as a serious, perceptive, determined officer—like General Stanley McChrystal, the real-life inspiration for the character—who was surrounded by a team of odd and frustrating characters. Instead, McMahon himself ends up being The Joke, and a distraction from the film’s message.
Halfway through the story, a Rolling Stone reporter (based on Michael Hastings) joins McMahon’s team. This poses a problem— the reporter has been narrating the film from the beginning…but wasn’t a witness to earlier events, undermining his credibility of his detailed observations and opinions. Despite going away after only a few minutes of screen time, the reporter’s subsequent article in Rolling Stone, “The Runaway General,” deflates McMahon’s ego, his goal for Afghanistan, and his career.
“I do believe I’m finished,” McMahon ruefully says, both to himself and to his stunned team, whose members tearfully say their goodbyes. The scenes are meant to be poignant, but instead fall flat.
War Machine never shows the audience why it should take McMahon seriously, instead favoring his inarticulate rambling and half-embalmed gesticulating for the easy laugh. It is a missed opportunity, both to entertain and to help viewers understand the significant complexities of the international mission in Afghanistan. For those who served there, it was a unique ride, full of highs and lows, but it was never easy. They deserve better. ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor at HistoryNet. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as a civilian intelligence officer.
War Machine will be available on Netflix on May 26, 2017.