JUNE 29, 2017
WAR MACHINE, the David Michôd–directed Brad Pitt vehicle now streaming on Netflix, is a fictionalized version of General Stanley McChrystal’s botched tenure as the head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010. It is the most expensive movie Netflix has distributed and, fitfully, a comedy. It doesn’t work, but then Hollywood movies about the US–led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have generally flopped, regardless of whether they work, regardless of approach. American Sniper is the great exception; Lone Survivor was a solid hit; War Dogs did fine; but even The Hurt Locker was only a modest box office success. Then we have Jarhead, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Kingdom, Green Zone, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — all flops.
We won’t know whether War Machine flops because Netflix will not release viewership figures. But it received tepid reviews and will certainly sink from consciousness soon enough. Before it does, though, let’s consider the ways in which it proves instructive — both about the cultural importance of Netflix and about the role of the warrior in US society.
Part of the reason War Machine doesn’t work is that the things McChrystal got fired for — overseeing a leadership corps on a pan-European bender, “shit-talking” the president and others — are small beer in the Trump era. A semi-satire about McChrystal’s failures can’t compete with an actuality in which a man unironically nicknamed “Mad Dog” is almost universally regarded as the necessary adult in the room when the president begins yelling at the television. This isn’t War Machine’s fault.
The other reasons the movie doesn’t work are entirely its fault. It is supposed to take us from the ass-kicking, macho posturing of its opening scenes, in which McChrystal (named Glen McMahon in a thin fictionalization) arrives in Afghanistan, through a series of increasingly grim revelations — the hollowness of McMahon’s marriage, his primitive grasp of political realities, the bankruptcy of counterinsurgency as a model, and the bloody actualization of that strategy in a scene where stacks of compensatory cash are passed across the body of a dead child. It then returns to square one: “The Glenimal” is replaced by “the new guy,” Bob White (Russell Crowe), who strides manfully through an airport as the soundtrack snaps back to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion song from the opening. In other words, War Machine is a movie about how the United States never learns, and it baits us into the same position, laughing in the same way at clomping Crowe as we might have at Pitt. Unfortunately, a world-weary voice-over carries the audience through the whole thing. We get an hour of it before we learn that the voice belongs to the stand-in for journalist Michael Hastings, whose Rolling Stone article nuked McChrystal’s career, and whose book, The Operators, is the official source for War Machine. This Hastings has nothing to learn, and so he undercuts anything we might learn or might teach ourselves.
War Machine is also a Brad Pitt movie — he stars, and his Plan B production company developed it — and in it, he does a lot of Brad Pitt things. He wears an accent as baggy as a Sean Spicer sports coat, which gives him room to be in the character but not beholden to it. This is something you see him do in Inglourious Basterds and 12 Years a Slave. He works out weirdly and a lot, jogging in a bow-legged, stiff-armed way. This is something you see him do in Burn After Reading and Moneyball. About the only totally Brad Pitt thing he doesn’t do is eat all the time, because McChrystal famously ate only one meal a day. We do see him not-eat an awkward anniversary dinner with his wife.
She is played by Meg Tilly, dropped from another performance galaxy entirely, where her compellingly realist depiction of a long-suffering wife whose near confession that the marriage is a numbing disaster, would — if ya really think about it — be a handy metonym for the United States’s endless warfighting. Then there is Tilda Swinton, playing a superb version of a German parliamentarian, mouthpiecing the movie’s politics more effectively than the put-upon voice-over. Finally, Ben Kingsley portrays Hamid Karzai — no nom-du-cinema here — by retreading his Oriental Despotism shtick from Iron Man 3, only to wax sage in his final scene, patronizing McMahon while laughing at Dumb and Dumber on his television.
In short, the movie no longer trusts the power of satire and so regularly lurches toward didacticism. As a result, the preternaturally aware soldier played by LaKeith Stanfield (Darius in Atlanta and the monitory dandy in Get Out) is too simple a contrast, too easy a complement to the compromised, black tech-whiz played by RJ Cyler. But the tracking shots that oppose the white-except-for-Cyler leadership corps to the far more diverse marines who will do their bidding are searing anyway. And there are some fantastic individual shots that have nothing to do with the comedy or the melodrama: one high and trailing as Pitt jogs through the streets of Paris, one distant and sidelong as he jogs along a huge wall in Kabul.
With its allegiances split between satire and sermon, War Machine has a great deal in common with Pitt’s Killing Them Softly. Both struggle to find a way to make their laudable political commitments entertaining; both end up tonally incoherent. But when an otherwise ordinary Hollywood movie’s tone starts to fragment, all sorts of deep weirdness become possible. Gaps open and enterprising craftspeople rush to fill them in an attempt to bring order to the whole. Nothing is stranger than the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack. Their compositions for the movie are the best account of the mixed emotions that the movie aspires to. And the choices of preexisting music are superb, ranging from Chicago Gangsters’s “Blind Over You” to Madlib’s “The Show (Inner View).” War Machine only indulges in War Dogs’s frat-rock ironies in order to subvert them.
And yet as weird as the movie is, it was made according to the usual Hollywood protocols, with one important exception. War movies routinely seek — and receive — access to US military equipment. In exchange, a Department of Defense liaison, Phil Strub, vets the script. For most big-budget filmmakers, the virtues of the American military are a given. Preclearance is a small price to pay for free hardware. So Lone Survivor had both its location and its equipment comped. War Machine, for obvious reasons, avoided the DoD route. Instead, the production shot in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, which, thanks to the rousing success of US arms sales in the region, could provide a certain amount of de-badged US military equipment on top of a solid 30 percent tax credit for in-country expenses. In one particularly savvy moment, Pitt’s McMahon is sitting down for an interview with 60 Minutes. He demands that some Toyota SUVs be moved out of the shot to display a line of Humvees. In the actual interview, McChrystal was inside; by shifting the scene outdoors for the movie, War Machine could highlight the equipment it was able to get, advertising its own and Abu Dhabi’s production values.
But if War Machine is at its core a Plan B project, why was the streaming service so attracted to it? First, because Netflix believes in stars, and celebrities like Pitt may be better able to activate back-catalog titles in the library. Big names may also reduce the company’s marketing expenses (which are already far below those of competing studios). Netflix’s experience with Adam Sandler is illustrative. Initially signed to a four-picture deal, his Happy Madison Productions has been re-signed for another four. Why?
Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that there are two Adam Sandlers, one who is on vacation and one who is dialed in. Netflix signed on for both, and initially received terrible publicity for the racist underpinnings of Sandler’s Western send-up The Ridiculous 6. But once the movie was available, Netflix broke its longstanding policy of not discussing ratings to trumpet its huge viewership. As Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos proclaimed, “In the first 30 days on Netflix it’s been the most-watched movie in the history of Netflix. It’s also enjoyed a spot at number one in every territory we operate in, and in many of them it’s still number one.”
Ridiculous was followed by ho-hum reviews of action-comedy The Do-Over, then better reviews and a wave of Sandler-is-actually-good thinkpieces for Sandy Wexler. The final project in the deal is The Week Of, co-starring Chris Rock. Along the way, Netflix also bought Sandler’s Noah Baumbach–directed, Palme-fucking-d’Or competitor The Meyerowitz Stories.
The Meyerowitz Stories premiered at Cannes on May 21, where it was one of two Netflix movies in competition (the other was Bong Joon-ho’s superpig GMO fable, Okja). War Machine debuted online a week later, and its story of a general touring Europe, seeking approval for his grand strategy seems neatly parallel to Netflix’s own prestige campaign on the Croisette. Both efforts had mixed results. McChrystal got the troops he wanted from NATO allies, but they came with onerous conditions and marked the end of the United States’s ability to bully its ISAF partners into coughing up forces. Netflix’s movies were well received, but its direct-to-streaming business model caused loud boos when Okja premiered, and the festival changed its policy to require that all films in competition receive a French theatrical release. Sarandos noted that the restrictions made returning to Cannes “less attractive.”
But if the campaign within War Machine parallels Netflix’s European art cinema adventure, the company’s real war is not about the nature of The Movies, but about enlisting movies in the company’s war on television. Netflix is a TV alternative. It now has more subscribers than all US cable companies combined and constitutes the largest share of internet traffic in the evening. By most measures, it spends more money on original programming than any other single content producer ever has. It is a central driver of the era of “Peak TV,” our current moment in which there are more than 450 scripted series. In contrast, War Machine is a movie — a one-off, a non-series, something that, however expensive, will not be renewed or even followed up. As a result, it is uniquely positioned to think about the things it is not: the endless grinding of “America’s longest war” and the necessary, periodic renewal of commitment that a war, or a television series, requires. Through War Machine, Netflix understands the televisual field as an insurgency, and understands itself as the invading, counterinsurgent force. That invasion is complex, and requires an enormous commitment of resources, the cultivation of allies like Plan B, and a good deal of public theorizing in the form of movies, original programming, and pronouncements.
Just a week after War Machine dropped, on June 2, Richard Rushfield declared “the beginning of the end of the middle of Peak TV, the greatest wild spending binge in world cultural history, held up by the magical thinking of tech investors by way of Netflix and a bunch of crazy [over-the-top services] whose names you soon won’t be able to remember.” Rushfield went on, “We’ve lived through an amazing time when for a brief period the great Hollywood dream of zero accountability was accepted and matched by the great Silicon Valley dream of zero transparency. But now the dream is ending.”
The signal wake-up calls were both issued by Netflix. On the policy side, CEO Reed Hastings declared at a Code conference that the company needed to cancel more shows: “We have to take more risk; you have to try more crazy things. Because we should have a higher cancel rate overall.” And on the practice side, the company did just that. R. I. P. The Get Down and Sense8.
Inside Netflix, War Machine makes perfect sense. The war for televisual dominance goes on and on, led by an endless series of overconfident white guys striding at the screen. But if the movie makes sense of Netflix’s strategy, that comes at the expense of its accuracy and its cultural power.
Crowe’s cameo as Bob White (viewers have to put together the bird pun on their own) is a bit off. In Afghanistan, McChrystal was replaced by a much less physically imposing figure than Crowe, David Petraeus, whose own tragi-comic career flameout over a sex-for-secrets scandal makes that move, in retrospect, absolutely hilarious and absolutely typical of the Obama era’s fetish for warrior-scholars. And War Machine only partially captures the contours and consequences of their lionization.
In the 1980s, boardroom generals read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Trump’s (ghostwritten) The Art of the Deal in order to get one leg up on the competition, to master the Asian-inflected “arts” of strategy. Then, strategy was a matter of caginess and synoptic power. But the warrior class that has come to the fore since 2000 has been different, and its relationship to the would-be warrior-CEOs of today is less a matter of strategy than affect. What is more, that affect is borne along by a system for its display and consumption.
Today’s washed-up generals become scholars of a particular stripe. They usually begin producing books with leadership lessons, hard won on the battlefield now ready to be deployed in the boardroom. War Machine is explicitly an adaptation of Hastings’s The Operators. It is tacitly an adaptation of McChrystal’s My Share of the Task, a book that the movie fictionalizes as One Leg at a Time; and even more tacitly, it is an adaptation of a whole range of business-leadership-virtue best sellers. On his last night in Afghanistan, McMahon settles in to read Excellence: The Myth and Magic of Modern Management, a book that doesn’t really exist, but might as well.
Such books and their attendant conference presentations nearly always feature lists of DJ Khaled–level “keys.” In War Machine, the list includes as many parts of speech as distinct concepts: Passion, Inspire, Discipline, Flexibility, Interconnectional, Listening, et cetera. In McChrystal’s Team of Teams, one of the central virtues is “Leading Like a Gardener.” Blissfully unaware of Being There — in which Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardiner gnomically intones, “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden” — McChrystal explains, “Gardeners plant and harvest, but more than anything they tend.” Alongside these keywords there are the requisite, bonkers diagrams of new organizational structures.
In War Machine, when McMahon is in Germany drumming up support for his Afghan surge, he explains the math of Counterinsurgency, that 10(insurgents) – 2(dead insurgents) ≠ 8(insurgents) but 20(insurgents), what with all of the wavering natives who will now join because their friends got killed. Behind him we see a PowerPoint slide laying out the dynamics and interactions of the insurgency in Afghanistan. That slide may be fictional, but the real version is just as ludicrous, and it appears in roughly the same role in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, where good-general Billy Bob Thornton ridicules it. The slide had become famous as part of a New York Times article on the perils of PowerPoint. But the problem with the slide isn’t that it is in PowerPoint, but that it is an attempt to display a system in its full dynamics. It is no more (and no less) complex than the legendary world system model in The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972). And it is this sort of system-depicting that helps to break down the walls between the modern military and the academy.
McChrystal’s unique selling proposition was that he had brought certain ideas from systems engineering to bear on the Joint Special Operations Task Force (War Machine calls the process “SNORPP”); after his service, he would bring those ideas back to bear on non-military organizations. You might think that after three quarters of a century, executives would have tired of hearing of the profitable joys of systems engineering in its various forms, of its successes at Toyota, or GE, or NASA. But they have not. They love this stuff. CBS was able to reuse its 60 Minutes footage of McChrystal jogging oddly in Afghanistan as the lead-in to a scene depicting corporate types paying handsomely for the privilege of jogging oddly alongside him through DC before — and I am begging you to click through and watch this — pausing in front of the Lincoln Memorial while McChrystal delivers a leadership talk next to an easel with pictures of Lincoln and his generals that might just as easily have been generated for a fifth-grade history class. Books, presentations, consulting: this is the post-military model.
Disgraced General Michael Flynn had served as McChrystal’s number two in Afghanistan — he and his wife actually accompanied McChrystal and his at the anniversary dinner — and followed him down the book-and-consulting path. In fact, he followed him so closely that his organization, the Flynn Intel Group, was incorporated using McChrystal’s DC address as its headquarters. But the Flynntel Group never possessed the polish to take their post-service careers to the next level of prestige, to find a respected institution of higher learning to endorse the scholar portion of the warrior-scholar dyad. McChrystal did and now teaches at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
Across the American academy, you will find this grift. Go ahead, poke around on your alma mater’s website, or the site of the nearest research university. Find the leadership institute or the global affairs center. There, among the temporarily embarrassed politicians and the decision-theorists, you’ll find these post-career military guys, many of them running lucrative consultancies on the side. Occasionally, the academy manages some push back. Karl Eikenberry, former general and ambassador to Afghanistan who clashed with McChrystal there, bailed on his Northwestern gig when he encountered friction. Petraeus, of course, was brought up on charges and nearly chased out of CUNY. He still has affiliations all over the place, including Harvard’s Kennedy School and USC, where I teach.
But more often than not, these guys fit in. And why not? They give administrators ready examples of non-leftists on campus, but they aren’t, by and large, doctrinaire right-wingers either. They get along well with big donors. A lot of students love them. They bear a unique emotional tone: they have seen some shit, man; they’ve kept it all inside and now, now, they’ll let you catch a glimpse of it. CBS’s national security correspondent asked McChrystal if he had a hole in his heart over getting fired, and the network actually let the interview end on McChrystal’s words: “I would be dishonest to say that I didn’t lose something that, that meant an awful lot to me. Be dishonest to say that it doesn’t still hurt.”
This cult of white, male, warrior-scholar sentimentality is the engine of the contemporary war machine. The hole in the warrior’s heart is the very last remnant of our belief in meritocracy. They are deserving because they suffer more authentically the burdens of command. This sentimentality also abets today’s cult of the CEO, now cast as the Fearless Disruptor, now as the pain-feeling Canceller of Good Television. At companies like Ace Hardware and Intuit, the CEO’s decisions aren’t life and death, but by leaning on the pathos of the retired general, they can make it seem like the adoption of new strategies to maximize profits is just as fraught. (They’ll blurb McChrystal’s books if he blurbs theirs. This, of course, happened.) Warrior-scholars are models worth looking up to, not subjects of satire.
War Machine nearly figures out that McMahons can’t be snarked out of existence — ridicule only makes them hurt more, only makes the sad-boy-behind-the-uniform more powerful later on. Again, such ironies dissolve with Trump in power. As Rebecca Solnit explains, he is the most mocked man in the world. In his scattershot pronouncements, we get all the peek-a-boo of pain without any strategy at all. Instead of bearing the burden manfully-but-theatrically, we get petulance.
There is no doubt that Trump’s emotional life lies at the center of US culture today. Still, the warrior class remains deeply embedded in our major institutions, nearly immune to critique despite its failures. Unable to commit to its satire, War Machine tries outsourcing its criticism to black and brown soldiers on the front lines, a female European, a dissolute Afghan, a pair of callow DC operators, voicing all of them through a weaselly (white, male) journalist. That fails, too. It’s not clear what would work. As I said, the music almost does.
J. D. Connor is an associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. His book on neoclassical Hollywood, The Studios After the Studios, was published in 2015 by Stanford.