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Savvy ‘Pentagon Wars’ Scores a Direct Hit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Facing the House Armed Services Committee, which is demanding accountability for the $14 billion spent on a problem-plagued military vehicle, an Army general tries to put a patriotic spin on the situation by saying: “We are all taxpayers, after all. We’re in this together.”

Wah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. If you weren’t laughing, you’d be crying.

Deftly directed by Richard Benjamin and incisively acted by a cast that includes Kelsey Grammer and Cary Elwes, “The Pentagon Wars” is a savvy satire of military spending--an epic tale of boys and their toys. Debuting on HBO tonight at 8, it’s a triumph for that cable outlet on the order of 1993’s “Barbarians at the Gate,” to which it bears striking similarities.

It must be conceded right up front that “The Pentagon Wars” is decidedly one-sided. As depicted here, the military brass might as well be wearing red noses, and the Pentagon is dismissed as a place run on “cash flows and egos.”

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Yet the movie sides squarely with America’s enlisted men and women, whose safety, the story alleges, has been overlooked amid pork-barreling and cover-ups. Many of the issues raised here carry particular weight with our troops deployed, once again, in the Persian Gulf.

The movie is based on the nonfiction 1993 book of the same name by retired Air Force Col. James G. Burton. As adapted for the screen by Jamie Malanowski and Martyn Burke, the story is told in flashback, as Army Gen. Partridge (Grammer)--whose personal war with white knight Burton (Elwes) has come to light--faces the House committee.

Partridge oversees testing of a number of military projects, and Burton has been assigned by Congress to oversee them. Partridge is particularly anxious for Burton to sign off on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, but Burton quickly determines that Partridge’s testers have been lobbing softballs at the vehicle--a hybrid troop transport and tank--because it would fail if subjected to battle conditions. Burton worries that, if the design proceeds as is, the vehicle will be a rolling deathtrap.

The logic on display here is supremely twisted: The military brass is under fire because an increasingly skeptical public believes that the Pentagon boondoggles everything it touches. To counter that perception, the brass wants to rush designs into production, no matter how riddled with flaws.

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Director Benjamin depicts the Pentagon as a giant anthill, its labyrinthine halls and crowded offices swarming with identical-looking workers on urgent but pointless missions. Grammer projects just the right mix of blustering villainousness and blundering ineptitude; you want to reach into your picture tube to wipe that condescending half-smile right off his face.

And Elwes, who does such a good job at playing fair-haired heroes (remember “The Princess Bride”?), particularly is in fine form. As compassion and determination play across his handsome features, you can’t help but root for him and the soldiers he’s trying to safeguard.

Redesigned Bradley vehicles did roll into action in the Gulf War, by the way, and they’re in place over there, ready to be used again.

* “The Pentagon Wars” debuts at 8 tonight on HBO. The cable network has rated it TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under 17, with a language advisory).


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