War Machine: Brad Pitt’s Astonishing Performance as Glen McMahon

Adding a panel to the growing number of American satires of the military, War Machine, as written and directed by David Michod, is nonetheless far 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.

Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley

In fact, if the scope of this movie is wider and larger than all of the aforementioned titles, it is 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 the entertainment industry and its pop stars.

The movie should have been titled War Machines, rather than War Machine, because there are so many machines that serve as targets–the movie fires relentlessly on many cylinders at the same time.

The best thing about the movie (which has many merits and some flaws) is Brad Pitt’s astonishing performance in what admittedly is a very difficult role, requiring the actor to draw on his considerable comedic skills and navigate an endlessly changing tonal moods.

Pitt goes way beyond what he did in Tarantino’s WWII Pulp fiction, Inglorious Basterds, and he certainly is more interesting to watch–and tolisten to–than his latest work in Allied, Zemeckis’s disappointing WWII romance (in which Pitt felt uncomfortable, perhaps even miscast).

To his credit, Pitt is not engaged in look or mimicry of the real-life general upon which his character is based, the outspoken four-star General Stanley A. McChrystal, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan for two years, 2009-2010, until he was fired by then president Barack Obama.

The key to the film’s constantly shifting tone is setting up its hero/anti-hero, Glen McMahon, as both absurdly overblown but also as a representative of a larger and more troubling socio-political context that he (and most Americans) fail to comprehend.

He comes into the picture as a larger-than-life, brazen badass, in the mold of legendary and “crazy” World War II generals, such as Patton and McArthur, steeped in career honors and the military machismo that accompany them. He is a Yale grad, self-assured, medal-festooned vet who declares that after eight  years of involvement, “We will win this thing! Yee-haw! Right away, sir!”

Nonetheless, as when he finally realizes that he is involved in a no-win situation, and inevitably heading for a fall, he becomes a more human and vulnerable character.  Suddenly his earlier grand, self-assured ambitions begin to crash with the surrounding reality.  The war plans he was recruited to “fix” make no rational sense anymore.

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.”

Arguably, Brad Pitt never had so much dialogue to deliver in a movie before.  But watching him deliver it was just inspiring for everyone as we were shooting.  It was so much crazy fun.  The scenes where McMahon is with his entourage — known as The Bubble –are deliberately absurd, almost surreal.

The whole film is walking a tonal tightrope, and Pitt is excellent at navigating these radical tonal changes.  Michod says that he was “exhilarated by the feeling that we were making a movie that didn’t feel like other movies.”

As played by Pitt, McMahon is full of contradictions.  On the one hand, he comically  and obsessively attached to sustaining his take-no-prisoners image.  But on the other hand, he is also sincere in his desire to turn the war around and overhaul the entire military apparatus,

It’s those contrasts, which define Pitt’s persona, that make his character so mesmerizing.  The 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 holds that he can transform a war that’s going badly into a winning one.

Says Michod, “Glen 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 multiple nations behind his unrealistic vision.”

Drawing on his range and experience (both still underestimated) as an actor, Pitt is impressive in showing a heady mix of empathy and comedy in playing the lead 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 a famous leading men and a celeb, Pitt has made a career of taking on unexpectedly demanding 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 Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds; and the tobacco-chewing, game-changing baseball manager Billy Beane in Moneyball, which deservedly earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

But Pitt has never done anything like Glen McMahon–the character truly stands out as something different yet.  In a conventional World War II film, McMahon would have been the hero, not part of the bigger problem, which represents a new reality that Glen can’t absorb, let alone acclimate.  That gave Pitt a chance to be both brazenly in-charge and frustratingly powerless.

Says Michod: “Brad playing this character excited the hell out of me, because I knew I wanted McMahon to be amplified yet sympathetic.

Brad has appeared in comedies before, like the Coen brothers still underestimated farce, Burn After Reading.  But War Machine offers him the greatest opportunity to date to dive head-first into that intriguing genre.

Says producer 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 the beauty of Pitt’s rich interpretation is that he also crafted a character who is essentially a good man whose philosophy of war is a result of years of hard battle.  He is a proud American warrior who loves winning, but increasingly feels trapped within a system where there is only one​ ​version of winning.

The cast was inspired to follow Pitt’s lead–and risky leap–into this tragicomic world.  Comments colleague 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.“

Indeed, having watched War Machine, it’s hard to imagine any other American actor–not even George Clooney or Sean Penn, both charismatic and terrific performers–who can capture vividly the multiple faces of Glen McMahon.