Monday, 29 May 2017

No end in sight: "War Machine"

In the end, the issue may lie at the point of departure, not the point of delivery. The trade press has been ablaze these past few weeks with the debate, originated in Cannes, over the right of Netflix's original features to compete in festivals intended to showcase big-screen fare. If there is a "Netflix problem", however, it strikes me as developing further up the conveyor belt: that here is an organisation blessed with increasingly vast amounts of subscriber money, and creatives lining up to receive a benevolence currently denied to them by the comic book-obsessed studios, but without the hard-nosed producers who could better regulate the flow of cash for content. These are the middlemen who might, for example, have hovered over Aziz Ansari's shoulder and suggested that Season Two of Master of None was getting cutesy, and that its female love interest needed at least one more rewrite; who might have deigned to tell Tina Fey that the brilliant comic ideas bubbling up in the course of a 30-minute Kimmy Schmidt episode might be better served by a 23/25-minute cut, of the kind that made 30 Rock a show for the ages; or simply have sidled up to Baz Luhrmann as he was effusing about The Get Down, and uttered a deflating but necessary "nah". (The precedent would be HBO, who at the turn of the Nineties turned subscriber revenue into a run of useful made-for-TV movies, stand-up specials and boundary-pushing series - but that service had the personnel on hand to trim the fat where necessary, and it wasn't handing Adam Sandler an allowance every couple of months.)

I was struck again by this absence while watching this weekend's new release War Machine, a Brad Pitt-starring, Brad Pitt-produced satire that looks to have passed onto our screens without any of the usual checks and balances that might ensure us a good time. The source is journalist Michael Hastings' non-fiction tome The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, centring on a hands-on, take-no-prisoners general who came late to this conflict (in 2009) and increasingly found his primary objective wasn't - as anticipated - rallying the troops to a decisive victory over the Taliban, rather putting glitter on what was, by that point, a towering and especially odoriferous turd. In the book, this figure was the hapless Stanley McChrystal, focus of Hastings' hellzapoppin' Rolling Stone profile "The Runaway General"; presumably at the behest of lawyers, the movie offers us Pitt huffing and puffing away in camouflage garb that bears the name tag Glen McMahon. Very quickly, you see where some additional degree of intervention might have been beneficial. For starters, it needed someone behind the scenes to point out how, for all the material's inherent absurdity, the natural inclination of this story is towards tragedy or at best tragicomedy; that any attempt at remodelling it as a goofy good time would simply be to read against the grain of Hastings' words. It also, more immediately, needed a more objective judge than Brad Pitt to point out the myriad ways in which Pitt's performance as McMahon simply wasn't working.

It is conceivable that Pitt, a thoughtful producer-star in the right circumstances (Moneyball, 12 Years a Slave), felt he had to impose himself triply on this material, to give Hastings' grounded prose a cinematic lift. Yet right from the first shot of McMahon striding bow-legged through an airport terminal, face clamped in a Popeye-like rictus - in short, before the actor has even opened his mouth - your internal "uh-oh" radar is pinging. This is Brad doing capital-F Funny (contracting Clooney syndrome, as was once diagnosed), with all the squandered effort that implies. No-one seems to have mentioned that Pitt is too young-seeming to play a hardened combat veteran: he's left labouring away under a grey dye job and a set of ornery alpha-dog attitudes that sit altogether uneasily on these shoulders. Worse, the film looks to have made its mind up about McMahon being a loser from his first appearance, which means there's nowhere very rewarding or provocative for the next two hours to go: we're meant to laugh at this guy, no matter that the writing and playing is such that we can't. After the excellent but sincerely grim Animal Kingdom and The Rover, David Michod wouldn't have been the obvious choice for this project, and that lack of affinity shows: you wonder whether he wasn't drawn here by the twenty minutes of battle footage he gets to shoot towards the end, because - back at base - scene after scene drifts by without any detectable purpose, and without arriving at anything like a punchline. There's the vaguest air of an idea about a hardened G.I. coming to discover that modern warfare is basically a PR exercise, but all this script pulls from that scenario is a mild series of anecdotes: meetings with a distractible Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley) and an Obama lookalike, a cameo from Tilda Swinton as a German politician, a lot of Brad jogging bandy-legged around his new post, which everybody involved seems to consider the funniest thing you ever did see. (Producer says no.)

There's one very sharply composed and performed sequence, and - perhaps not coincidentally - it's the one scene in which Swinton appears, suggesting she might have been the organising intelligence the project required: here, the galumphing McMahon is set down before a room of dignitaries and obliged to explain why taking out two insurgents often leaves an occupying force with ten or twelve more opponents on their hands. The scene works because, for the briefest moment, nobody in the frame is straining for chuckles; we're simply being given Hastings' straight-up reportage - the hard facts and figures that have been dolled up for entertainment elsewhere. Still, as any producer or general worth their stripes could tell you, one good scene in 120 minutes - like one victory in a decade-long war - can't be considered enough. The movies persist in attempting to jolly up this conflict - think Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, or Rock the Kasbah, or even that one where Nicolas Cage and Russell Brand set out on a donkey to kill Osama bin Laden, if you must - but the conflict stubbornly resists jollification: the underlying facts are too sad, the wounds too open and raw, the sense of waste too great for us to even begin to relax about it, let alone smile and laugh. A film as fundamentally mismanaged as War Machine has no chance of overcoming those obstacles: it doesn't matter how many faces Brad pulls, how much new-media money has been thrown at the screen, nor even which size of screen you happen to catch Michod's film on. The turd remains fundamentally unglittered.

War Machine is now in selected cinemas, and available to stream on Netflix.          

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