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War Machine movie review – long live the middle picture

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Will Netflix single-handedly revive the mid-budget movie? These are the sorts of productions veteran filmmakers such as David Lynch, Francis Ford Coppola and John Waters say they can no longer make. Studios nowadays tend to choose between two options: cheap-as-chips flicks that cost a few million dollars, or nine-digit blockbusters usually involving marquee franchises with instantly recognisable brand names.

The age-of-disruption streaming service delivers the third film from Australian director David Michôd, following Animal Kingdom and The Rover. Arriving on Netflix May 26, War Machine was budgeted at a reported US$60 million. It is on the upper crust of the mid-budget or ‘middle picture’. But as Michôd told The Guardian in a recent interview, speaking generally but not inaccurately: “We knew early on that we were making the kind of movie that doesn’t really get made by the studios any more … films that are unusual and risky, with the resources to do it properly.”

“The kick to War Machine comes slowly and coyly, the film best interpreted as an entire arc that comes together in the end.”

The filmmaker was clearly brought on board to give the project indie cred, and star Brad Pitt to provide a familiar and highly clickable face. But will viewers keep watching? This shrewd, shape-shifting, in many ways restrained satire requires a little patience. It’s difficult to peg down: at once a cagey character study, political commentary, offbeat war pic and idiosyncratic black comedy, with little of the expected signposting associated with any of those kinds of films.

Pitt plays General Glen McMahon, a thinly veiled version of General Stanley McChrystal, the real-life, can-do army man tasked by the US government to “get the job done” in Afghanistan. Also, an outspoken critic of Barack Obama’s decision to scale back US military presence in the region. McChrystal’s career ended ignominiously, sacked by the President after a damning profile was published in Rolling Stone by a journalist, Michael Hastings, who traveled with the General and his staff. Michôd’s screenplay adapts Hastings’ book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.

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A long and dense voice-over-heavy opening section — not unlike episodes of Narcos, or Scorsese films such as Casino — introduces us to McChrystal, unpacking his job, character, temperament and inner circle. We learn he barely sleeps, runs seven miles before breakfast and is a humble man — in the way of ‘my humility makes me better than you.’ The narrator reflects on the situation in Afghanistan, with commentary on realities of war such as counterinsurgency.

“From the get-go [Pitt’s] performance implies that War Machine is a comedy, but Michôd seems obsessed with not allowing audiences to put the film in a box.”

In Michôd’s eyes the general’s job is hopeless and thankless, though the director maintains a respectful and even sympathetic regard for McMahon and his men – while simultaneously criticising US involvement in the region. The story isn’t framed in an overtly polemic or stinging way. The kick to War Machine comes slowly and coyly, the film best interpreted as an entire arc that comes together in the end. It is not unlike, in the way it makes a point about how bureaucracy can go round and round in a meaningless loop, the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading.

Brad Pitt is Clooney-esque with his grey hair and arched eyebrow, plus one cartoonish squinted eye that reminded me of Popeye. From the get-go his performance implies that War Machine is a comedy, but Michôd seems obsessed with not allowing audiences to put the film in a box. So coming to terms with what exactly you’re watching is part of the fun – also, possibly, part of the frustration. Michôd leaves himself open to complaints that as a comedy the film is not funny enough, and as a war pic there’s too little action.

I enjoyed the erratic structure of War Machine; the sly approach it brings to war and politics. In a strange way the film is about branding and crisis management. It shows Michôd is an apt hand in a range of genres (and includes a breathlessly intense on-the-ground conflict scene, late in the running time) even if there’s a ‘master of none’ quality about it.

I suspect Netflix’s latest move into what was traditionally the domain of cinema will be a mite divisive. But there’s no doubt War Machine takes risks and doesn’t skimp on budget or star power. Long live the middle picture.

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