War Machine, the new Netflix original movie starring Brad Pitt playing a disturbingly over-confident General based on Stanley McChrystal, is controversial for all the wrong reasons.
First there was the kerfuffle at Cannes, where Netflix was booed for breaking tradition by submitting films that would be released on laptops instead of theaters. Then there was the casting of Brad Pitt, which some categorized as a colossal misstep. Variety said that the almost surreal comic role should “have gone to John Goodman, or some comparably gifted character actor.” And then there’s the focus of the film itself. Is it an “irrelevant and brash” alpha-male misfire? Or an “assured and nervy black satire” that tries to have it both ways by mocking the war even as it sympathizes too heavily with the officers who wage it?
What gets ignored in all of these various reactions is the reality of the ongoing war itself and how this film relates to it. Sure, it’s novel and interesting that online streaming companies are producing original films. And of course the wisdom of casting a Peter Pan hunk like Brad Pitt as an American general is up for debate. But isn’t the real scandal that there’s an ongoing occupation to critique at all? If the film comes off as brash, it’s because it conveys an irreverent confidence that almost seems to anticipate the media missing the forest for the trees. A major theme of the film is, after all, how mass media fails us on a moral level, always transforming events that require somber moral reflection into superficial sleaze. And so I can’t help but wonder if reviews of War Machine have been so uniformly unfavorable because of the disconnect between the ongoing war and popular culture, and how the film implicates the media in sustaining that rift.