With his bow-legged power-walk, low-boil narcissism and tough-guy snarl, Brad Pitt is the comic ghost in David Michod's all-too-real War Machine. The film was inspired by the late Michael Hastings's book The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan. That book was itself inspired by the author's own controversial Rolling Stone article, the one that detailed some curiously forthright, booze-soaked encounters with U.S. General Stanley McChrystal and his men, and famously led to the general's dismissal.
But Michod's film is not so much about the officers' transgressions as it is about the ceaseless merry-go-round of mismanagement and delusion that came to define America's '00s efforts in Afghanistan. It's a complex subject, to say the least. And the film struggles at times with trying to make parodic jabs at a serious topic -- it never quite seems to go far enough with its satire. But Pitt's ridiculous, wildly over-the-top performance somehow keeps it all together. Whenever he's onscreen, the film finds its soul, its heart, and its funny bone.
Pitt plays Glen McMahon, a decorated four-star general and Army Ranger who's been given leadership of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He's excited about the opportunity, but, as an opening voiceover tells us, McMahon is just another in a long line of generally disposable officers who have been brought in to clean up the mess. It's a tricky role: McMahon is a gung-ho guy, but he's not exactly a brute, or even entirely a fool. Pitt and Michod still present McMahon as a man caught between heroism and pathos. That sense of uncertainty brings the film to life; it keeps us watching and wondering.