American movies are traditionally of two minds about our military might, celebrating it in John Wayne epics and mocking it in everything from "MASH" to "Dr. Strangelove." But "War Machine" has decided, with exceptional results, that it wants it both ways.
Starring Brad Pitt and written and directed by the gifted David Michôd, "War Machine" is on the one hand an assured, nervy black satire on America's involvement in Afghanistan and on one particular soldier, commander of U.S. forces and four-star Gen. Glen McMahon, a.k.a. Big Glen or the Glenimal.
Yet while "War Machine" makes it clear that McMahon made a hash of things in Afghanistan in any number of in-over-his-head ways, the general can also be viewed as the most sympathetic character in the film. He's an idealistic individual who meant well but, oblivious to everything but his own earnest goals, became stubbornly disconnected from reality with ruinous results.
"War Machine" is the first of Australian filmmaker Michôd's three films (after the brilliant criminal drama "Animal Kingdom" and the post-apocalyptic thriller "The Rover") to have a dominant sense of humor. What unites it with its predecessors is Michôd's fierce intelligence and formidable directing skill.
Michôd's starting point was the late Michael Hastings' "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan," a nonfiction book that grew out of a Rolling Stone article that so embarrassed Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal he resigned his Afghan command in 2010.
Though Michôd has lifted certain details from McChrystal's lifestyle, including his routine of running seven miles a day and sleeping but four hours, "War Machine's" McMahon feels like an off-beat riff on the idea of the general rather than a disguised portrait.
In this, he's been helped by some very deft work by Pitt, whose combination of comedic skills and movie star persona is put to excellent use here. His canny but doltish McMahon has the difficult task of being in effect a cartoon character placed in real-world places where his decisions get people killed. Places like Afghanistan.
Bringing us up to date about McMahon as he heads out in 2009 from his previous posting in Iraq to take command in Afghanistan are the words of an unseen and initially unidentified narrator. He turns out to be journalist Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), a whip-smart and wearily cynical individual who knows a lot but has come to understand that no one cares what he thinks.
McMahon, we learn, is a former Ranger who was both a straight-A student and a troublemaker at West Point. He's a man of formidable drive but no visible sense of humor, author of a well-regarded book called "One Leg at a Time Just Like Everyone Else" and an officer beloved by the men who serve under him because he isn't afraid of getting his hands dirty.
First among equals in this man's Army are the general's reverential inner circle, a handful of men known as the Bubble that both pump up his ego ("We have a warrior at the helm" is a typical comment) and insulate him from too much contact with the real world.
Smartly cast by Francine Maisler and Des Hamilton to include such expert actors as Topher Grace, John Magaro, Anthony Michael Hall and Emory Cohen, this group enables Michôd to deftly skewer the ritualistic way these men talk to each other as well as the traditional norms of male camaraderie the military specializes in.
The general, it turns out, mightily distrusts civilians, believing, narrator Cullen tells us, "they hadn't earned their power, they got it through charm and seduction, qualities he lacked." Which means that McMahon's interactions with U.S. Ambassador Pat McKinnon (Alan Ruck) are less than satisfactory.
Though he sincerely wants to involve them, the general has only marginally better luck with the wary Afghans, including the country's wily leader Hamid Karzai (a sly Ben Kingsley), more interested in hooking up his Blu-Ray player than buying into McMahon's dream.
For one of the endearing things about the general as he goes about his business is that he might be the only person in the entire country who believes that the stated American mission of nation building, even at the point of a gun, can be accomplished. If he's at the helm.
So while McMahon is uncomfortable with the mechanics of this new kind of war (described by Cullen as fighting "regular people in regular people clothes"), he understands counter-insurgency enough to know "you can't help them and kill them at the same time." But his response — for instance, giving soldiers medals for "courageous restraint" (a real McChrystal suggestion) — only confuses the troops.
As intensely masculine as this deranged, absurdist situation is, Michôd has managed to create a pair of notable roles for women.
Meg Tilly is on point as the sweetly suffering wife (known as Mrs. Boss) that the general truly loves, and Tilda Swinton is expert as a German legislator who tells McMahon, "I do not question the goodness of your intention. I believe you are a good man. I question your belief in the power of your ideas."
The general doesn't agree with her, but the savvy and involving "War Machine" definitely does.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Playing: iPic, Westwood; Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Santa Monica
Streaming: Netflix starting May 26