War Machine (2017): Brad Pitt as Glen McMahon in David Michod’s Military Satire

Adding a panel to the growing number of American satires of the military, War Machine, as written and directed by David Michod, is more complex and multi-nuanced than, say, Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr, Strangelove, Robert Altman’s 1970 M.A.S.H., or David O. Russell’s 1999 Three Kings.

In fact, the scope of this movie is wider and larger than all of the aforementioned titles, because its target is not only the military (or the industrial military complex), but also the government and its officials, the press and its journalists, and even entertainment and its pop stars.

The movie should have been titled War Machines, rather than War Machine.

The best thing about the movie (which has many merits and some flaws) is Brad Pitt’s astonishing performance in what is admittedly a very difficult role. Pitt goes way beyond what he did in Tarantino’s WWII Pulp fiction, Inglorious Basterds, and he certainly is more interesting to watch–and listen to–than his latest work in Zemeckis’s disappointing Allied.

To his credit, Pitt is not engaged in mimicry of the real-life general upon which his character is based.

The key to WAR MACHINE’s shifting tone was setting up Glen McMahon as both absurdly overblown but also representative of a larger, more troubling idea.

He comes into the picture as a larger-than-life brazen badass, built in the mold of legendary World War II generals like Patton and McArthur, steeped in career honors and the military machismo that accompany them — but as he heads for a fall, he becomes a surprisingly vulnerable character whose grand, self-assured ambitions crash into the reality that the war plans he is recruited to fix make no rational sense.

Writer-director Michôd explains:  “I wanted Glen to be more than just colorful, and since we had the incredible opportunity to use Brad Pitt’s comedic skills, we took advantage of that.  For me, the chance to give Brad a character who is so unreservedly heightened and give him room to embody a character in the way only he can was really exciting.”

He goes on:  “Brad said he never had so much dialogue to deliver in a movie before and watching him deliver it was just inspiring for everyone as we were shooting.  It was so much crazy fun and the scenes where McMahon is with his entourage — known as The Bubble — were so absurd. The film was walking a tonal tightrope.  I was exhilarated by the feeling that we were making a movie that didn’t feel like other movies.”

McMahon might be comedically attached to sustaining his take-no-prisoners image but he is also sincere in his desire to turn the war around and overhaul the entire military apparatus – and it’s those contrasts that make his character so mesmerizing.  The terrible irony is that the more he tries to shake things up, the more chaotic things get for those he is commanding.    “Glen sees himself as a maverick and in order to seize his page in the history books, he truly believes he is going to transform a war going badly into a win,” explains Michôd. “He believes he’s the guy who’s going to get everything organized and focused, and somehow he believes he is going to rally a coalition of 40-something nations behind his unrealistic vision.”

Kleiner enjoyed witnessing the heady mix of empathy and comedy Pitt brought to the role. “You feel in him this constant tension – he tries to embody the American values of bravery, aspiration and progress, yet he’s watching his mission slip from his grasp. Brad is a supremely skilled non-verbal actor and you see so much about McMahon just in his eyes and gestures. He presents a very nuanced form of this heightened character,” he observes. “He echoes classic movie archetypes but subverts them to create something subtle and original.”   Though one of the most famous leading men on earth, Pitt has made a career of taking on unexpected roles. His work onscreen has included a mental patient turned animal rights activist in Terry Gilliam’s TWELVE MONKEYS; an old man aging in reverse in David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON; the squad leader of a troop of Nazi-attacking Jewish soldiers in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS; and the tobacco-chewing, game-changing baseball manager Billy Beane in MONEYBALL.   Glen McMahon stood out as something different yet.  In a World War II film, McMahon would have been the hero not part of the bigger problem, a new reality to which Glen can’t acclimate.  That gave Pitt a chance to be both brazenly in-charge and frustratingly powerless.   “Brad playing this character excited the hell out of me because I knew I wanted McMahon to be amplified yet sympathetic.

There have been times before when Brad has dipped his toe in the waters of comedy – in BURN AFTER READING or INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – but this was a chance for him to dive head-first into those waters,” says Michôd.   That’s exactly what happened.  Says Dede Gardner:  “Brad committed to the role full bore and I think he cuts to the core of the wounded pride of a man who has not fully adapted to a military, global and cultural landscape that is changing.  But Brad also crafted a character who is a good man, whose philosophy of war is a result of many years of hard study and battle, who is a proud warrior and who loves winning, but is trapped inside a system where there is only one​ ​version of winning.”

The cast was inspired to follow Pitt’s lead into this tragicomic world.  Comments Topher Grace:  “Brad’s an incredibly gifted comedic actor, and every day just watching him go for it was joyful. What Brad also brings is that iconic presence.  I can think of no better person to play a rock star general. “