From the moment Brad Pitt appears on screen in “War Machine,” you can tell he’s throwing himself into playing another person, from how he walks and places his body’s center of gravity to changing his voice and altering his facial features.
But it’s the “you can tell” part that sinks the performance: Pitt has excelled in a variety of roles, but one of the unifying factors behind his best work is that he makes it seem effortless. In “War Machine,” however, it’s all effort, and he makes it impossible to look at him without seeing how hard he’s working.
Pitt’s lead performance is a big problem, but it’s far from the only one dogging this War on Terror satire, about Gen. Glen McMahon and his efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people while simultaneously waging war on them. Writer-director David Michôd (“Animal Kingdom”), adapting Michael Hastings’s book “The Operators,” slathers a thick layer of narration on the film, constantly telling us what’s happening and how we’re supposed to feel about it. There’s never an opportunity to consider what the movie is about because that narration is constantly telling you exactly what it’s about.
McMahon is sent to Afghanistan in 2009, as a new president attempts to wind down what’s been a costly, unsuccessful and unpopular war there. Surrounded by an entourage that includes everyone from a bellicose fellow general (Anthony Michael Hall) to a slick-talking PR specialist (Topher Grace) and McMahon’s detail-oriented “body man” (Emory Cohen, “Brooklyn”), McMahon attempts to get the various foreign powers who are aiding the U.S. to work together, even though each nation is cordoned off in their own private office.
The war is not going well — as the narration so helpfully points out, counter-insurgencies are hard to pull off, since the people they’re supposedly there to help are the same people who are exchanging fire with soldiers and trying to get them to leave the country. When President Obama announces that operations will wind down in 18 months, McMahon decides to double down and ask for more troops to capture the most inhospitable territories. Doing so means committing an end run around recalcitrant U.S. bureaucrats while also trying to get the support of Afghan president Hamid Karzai (a very funny Ben Kingsley), who’s more interested in watching Blu-rays than helping his people.
McMahon’s best-laid plans ultimately collide with an up-close-and-personal profile in Rolling Stone magazine by Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy, who’s also doing all that narrating) that will change his career forever. But “War Machine” never quite connects the dots between McMahon’s bellicose belief in counter-insurgency and his downfall from that magazine piece; the two notions exist side-by-side without ever feeling particularly connected, and the result is a lack of dramatic tension or impact.
(Ultimately, we’re left with the message that you should never get drunk in front of a reporter, which has nothing to do with the hubris of digging into a failing military operation.)
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Michôd and his casting directors have packed the film with notable performers, even though there aren’t enough good scenes to go around. As a result, some of them (Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Meg Tilly, Alan Ruck, Lakeith Stanfield) are given a moment of genuine emotional impact or at least comedy, while others (Hall, Grace, McNairy, Aymen Hamdouchi, Griffin Dunne, Will Poulter) are mostly, through no fault of their own, along for the ride.
What’s most dispiriting about “War Machine” is that you can sense the satire it wants to be — and could have been — but never becomes. Whenever a subtle dig might be made about the bluster of American foreign policy or the military’s inability to acknowledge a quagmire, along comes McNairy’s voice to circle and underline the idea. Or there’s a shot of a jogging Pitt, whose gym-shorts elastic immediately below the rib cage is wearing him, and not vice versa. Or both.