Imagine if George C. Scott’s Gen. “Buck” Turgidson—who wore a comically confident grin in the face of nuclear apocalypse in his supporting scenes in Dr. Strangelove—had been given his own movie. That will give you some idea of what’s going on in Brad Pitt’s War Machine. It’s not that Pitt, playing a variation on a real-life American general who met his match trying to bring closure to the war in Afghanistan, gives the same performance as Scott, but it’s certainly a big one, defined almost entirely by comic tics (there were moments when I thought his squinting right eye was about to permanently shut). By the time the film makes an attempt to humanize Gen. Glen McMahon in the final third, it’s too late. We—and Pitt—have already committed to a clown.
Pitt is good at clowns. I happen to enjoy his broader performances, but it’s notable that they’re all supporting ones (Inglourious Basterds, Burn After Reading, Twelve Monkeys). Gen. McMahon would likely work in similarly small doses; that grimace is an amusing, literal twist on Pitt’s handsome mug, while the way he jogs—stiffly, but with purpose, as if he were a wind-up toy soldier—made me chuckle. But we get too much of this stuff, and so it’s jarring when War Machine suddenly wants to become a more thoughtful consideration of what the failure in Afghanistan meant for McMahon’s personal life (Meg Tilly is very good in a few short scenes as his wife).
There were moments when I thought Pitt’s squinting right eye was about to permanently shut.
It’s admirable that writer-director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover), who is adapting Michael Hastings’ nonfiction book, wants to take War Machine into this more reflective direction. (The opening segments, which blithely glide over massively complicated geopolitical situations, nearly drown in snark.) But it’s asking too much of Pitt to force him to drastically shift gears and suddenly take on the burden of another famous George C. Scott military performance: Patton. Beyond that, there is the extended battle sequence that leaves Pitt off the screen entirely, at which point War Machine completely drops any pretense of being a satire. In the end, this doesn’t know what kind of movie it wants to be, nor what sort of performance it wants Pitt to give.
The other actors, including Tilly, fare better. Topher Grace brings his particular brand of snitty superiority to the part of a brazen military publicist, while Alan Ruck is wonderfully weary as the American ambassador to Afghanistan. The funniest performance in the film (aside from a spot-on cameo at the very end) comes from Anthony Michael Hall as McMahon’s “oorah!” right-hand man, a simmering, musclebound fighting force who has no patience for politicians and diplomacy. He brings a high comic energy to every scene he’s in. But then again, he’s not in every scene.