Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 is named for a (fictional) military protocol whereby an army pilot can be held back from service if he’s not mentally fit for the task … except, of course, that by asking to be grounded in lieu of carrying out dangerous missions, he’s merely demonstrating sanity in excess. It’s a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t double-bind, and it also applies to anybody trying to mock the American military mindset since the book’s publication in 1961. You either follow in Heller’s footsteps and risk being labelled derivative, or else go in a different direction entirely and invite unfavorable comparisons to a stone-cold classic. The catch-22 is that Catch-22 already exists.
The latest entry into the War-is-Heller subgenre is War Machine, which arrives much-hyped but isn’t going to make anybody forget Catch-22 — or Dr. Strangelove, or M.A.S.H., or Three Kings, all of which owe debts to Heller but find their own delirious, memorable modes of expression. David Michôd’s film lacks comparable inventiveness, which may have to do with its status as an adaptation: Its story is taken from Michael Hastings’s 2012 nonfiction book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, whose subtitle offers an apt summation of its contents. After spending a month on the ground with the close-cropped, star-spangled Stanley McChrystal, a decorated Army lifer appointed supreme commander of all NATO forces in a pitched battle entering its second decade, Hastings concluded that his subject was, to quote the title of his explosive Rolling Stone profile, a "Runaway General" — a loose cannon at the controls of some seriously heavy artillery.
"I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, and that’s the problem," McChrystal confides at one point, unwittingly prophesying the circumstances of his own impending professional disgrace. A few months after the article, which contained several quotes criticizing the Obama administration in general and Joe Biden in particular, was published, the general was summoned to Washington by the president and ended up tendering his resignation.
The contradiction of a man who prides himself on discipline but bristles with insubordination is a promising starting point for a character study, and it’s easy to get behind the casting of Brad Pitt as a thinly veiled McChrystal figure (so thinly veiled that the star’s production company, Plan B, couldn’t get the project financed by a major studio and turned to Netflix to supply the $60 million budget). At his best, Pitt is our most resourceful movie-star-character actor, seeking out and finding ways to undermine or else weaponize his natural charisma. Think of the sullen, stubborn Billy Beane in Moneyball, or his crafty, nihilistic hitman in Killing Them Softly.
Sometimes, though, he shifts straight into buffoon mode, and War Machine brings him right to the edge of cartoonish caricature. In Inglourious Basterds, Pitt’s ridiculousness as a strutting alpha-male lieutenant was in line with Quentin Tarantino’s boldly stylized visuals and dialogue. (He was also basically playing QT himself, a masquerade confirmed in the film’s hilariously self-reflexive final lines).
Here, Pitt finds himself in the actor’s equivalent of a catch-22. Anybody who watches the movie knows that General Glen McMahon is supposed to be Stanley McChrystal, but the narrative has been fictionalized to the point where an impersonation would be inappropriate. At the same time, the further Pitt takes his acting into the realm of pure invention, the less the film convinces as a "realistic" riff on the War on Terror.
It’s not as if subtlety is on the menu anyway. McMahon is introduced in the opening shot to the sounds of a flushing toilet, a winking nod to the bathroom humor of Dr. Strangelove, with its repeated lines about generals being caught "with their pants down." Michôd, who broke through in 2010 with the sharp, serrated Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom and cultivated a low-key Mad Max vibe in 2014’s postapocalyptic thriller The Rover, doesn’t have a particularly wry directorial sensibility, which may be why he opts for such a broad ice breaker — and why he gives his star so much latitude to set the tone.
The basic thrust of Pitt’s performance is that McMahon thinks he’s the smartest guy in any room, which has to do with the fact that he’s on the right side of a chain of command that doesn’t exactly encourage independent thinking. The title of War Machine refers to McMahon’s own gleaming, precision-tooled efficiency, running quarter-marathons first thing in the morning after sleeping no more than four hours during the night. But we’re always cognizant of the cogs. Whatever their official job descriptions, the real purpose of the general’s coterie of staffers, assistants, and hangers-on (including an affable young suck-up played with great finesse by Emory Cohen) is to find a way to spin their boss’s comments in the right direction.
That proves increasingly challenging as the "Glenimal" begins making noises about "winning" the war even though all signs point to the powers that be wanting to reverse the flow of soldiers into the region. His plan is to employ the tactics of counterinsurgency, which gets referred to in military speak as "COIN" — a good joke hinting at how close the strategy of destabilization and rebuilding is to war profiteering. Even if Pitt never quite gets a handle on his role, it’s funny to watch McMahon struggle to fit in at the lavish European fundraisers he’s forced to attend in order to curry favor (and troop support) from America’s allies. Trading camouflage for black-tie, he’s like a hawk in dove’s clothing. There’s also something sharp about how the film delays its sole battle scene until the very end, after it’s already showed us just how absurdly self-serving the decision-making process that gets boots on the ground truly is — a decision that recasts the action in a bitterly ironic context.
Michôd’s skill for coiled, protracted suspense, which was on full display in Animal Kingdom, is evident in these sequences, which suggest that he might yet have a compelling, visceral combat film in him. But the overall failure of War Machine makes it unlikely that he’s going to get another chance any time soon. There’s always a catch.