Left to their own devices, all men want to do is play with their dicks and eat chicken.
Or, so writes four-star General Glen McMahon in his memoir, “One Leg at a Time.”
We learn a lot about McMahon in the beginning of War Machine, the Netflix production released in May. Unfortunately, very little do we learn from the actions of McMahon himself. Most of what we gather is spoon-fed to us by Sean Cully, a reporter for Rolling Stone, in voiceover. Things like:
“[McMahon’s] known as a humble man, but in a way that says my humbillity makes me better than you.”
The problem with this mode of exposition is that rather than allowing for the character to develop through his own actions, we’re asked to trust that this man is truly this mad-dog, master of systems organization, leader or leaders who knows how to win wars. His goal in War Machine is to win the war in Afghanistan. But when, over the course of the movie, his actual actions bear none of this promised true grit, the gimmick that is Gen. Glen McMahon reveals itself.
He’s a thinly veiled satire of Gen. Stanley McChrystal (indeed, the movie is based on The Operators by Michael Hastings) without the satire. Satire exposes ridiculousness. Yet, the act of exposing ridiculousness implies a facade of competency which McMahon and his team does not have.
Of course, McMahon is not the sole object of satire in War Machine, nor is he supposed to be. We climb the ladder here, meeting officials at various levels of government with skin in the Afghan War. And they’re all various levels of incompetent and self-serving. The Special Ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan who counsels McMahon on what he can and can’t do in the war is literally named Dick Waddle. (He goes by Richard now). This is the gold.
As a critique of the machinations of war (ho, War Machine!) the film excels. We’re taught that this war isn’t really a war. Rather, it’s a insurgency. Our troops in Afghanistan are fighting against civilians in civilian clothes, not armies in fatigues. It makes it harder to know who the hostiles are, and essentially impossible to ‘win.’
McMahon decides early on that the way to succeed is not by killing. He feels so strongly about this, in fact, that he awards “Courageous Restraint” medals to soldiers who don’t fire their weapons. Instead, his best course of action is to provide Afghanistan with what his country already has: personal and economic freedom. Only, he can’t do that either.
There’s a great scene where McMahon visits a poppy field on his initial tour of the country (ostensibly used for heroin production) and asks why don’t they grow something else? Something like cotton, which would grow well in this part of the world. The reason: the US won’t allow for the production of crops which would compete with the US on the international market. So, heroin it is.
Eventually, however, the film turns into a confusing mash of bureaucratic wheel-spinning, on-the-ground action, and journalistic truth-spitting. Taken together, these various pieces don’t quite fit together. Watching young marines raid an Afghan village (and killing civilians in the process) undercuts any good will the film had built to that point. It’s one thing to satirize the act of war in the abstract – like Dr. Strangelove – but quite another when we’re asked to watch marines clear a village on the orders of a self-aggrandizing, cock-sucking four-star General.
Ultimately, the Rolling Stone reporter who has been following McMahon and his team for months writes his expose. There’s drinking on the job and bad mouthing the President, sure, and it ends McMahon’s tenure in Afghanistan. But the lessons learned from its publication aren’t what it was meant to unearth. Rather than asking ‘Why are we making enemies?’ or ‘Does counterinsurgency work?’, the war machine keeps on rolling. The solution? New leadership, from General Bob White (a snarl-mouthed Russell Crowe playing a David Petraeus-type).
Director: David Michôd
Writer: David Michôd