Despite being a hub for some of the most creative storytellers in the world and a symbol of fame, wealth, and the American dream, Hollywood isn't immune to financial pressures. Consequently, studio executives, when deciding to greenlight a project, must also consider what the financial risks will be.
In 2015, when sitting down to talk with A-lister Brad Pitt and respected indie filmmaker David Michôd, the original backers of War Machine did just that. They examined the project — a satirical anti-war adaptation of Michael Hastings's nonfiction novel The Operators — then they looked at the budget of $60 million. Then they said no.
For such a substantial amount of money, the risks were deemed too high. Compared to recent pro-American war movies, such as Clint Eastwood's American Sniper (2014) or Kathryn Bigelow's more subtle The Hurt Locker (2008), #WarMachine's direct anti-war message is polarizing. Plus, it cost more than both of those films, with budgets of $58.8 million and $15 million, respectively. It's not difficult to see why studios weren't particularly enamored of Pitt's movie.
A Streaming Giant Free To Take Financial Risks
Step forward #Netflix. Compared to others in the industry, the streaming service is a brazen newcomer with a habit of stirring up controversy within Hollywood. Working to a different business model thanks to consumer monthly subscriptions and not being reliant on the cold, hard cash from box office results, Netflix swept in to take War Machine forward, investing the $60 million required — its biggest investment to date.
In an interview with The Guardian, director Michôd expressed his gratitude toward Netflix for opening the door to a creative opportunity which may not have come from standard means. He said:
“We knew early on that we were making the kind of movie that doesn’t really get made by the studios any more."
Subsequently, Michôd said he and Pitt's Plan B production company signed over the distribution rights for the film to Netflix, in exchange for "the ability to make films that are unusual and risky with the resources to do it properly."
Risky is an apt word. Hastings, who wrote the source material the film is based on, was a fearless and highly respected journalist who worked tirelessly to report on conflicts in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2010, he spent time with US Army General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as the commander's staff. Hastings' resulting article, published in Rolling Stone magazine, led to McChrystal's resignation.
In the Netflix adaptation, Pitt — who co-produced — plays General Glen McMahon, an overinflated caricature of McChrystal. In some ways, centering the marketing of War Machine around the larger-than-life, comedic protagonist sold itself short; its trailers have an air of Saturday Night Live about them, whereas the final product is much more nuanced.
War Machine: Anti-War And Proud
Aside from the controversy surrounding the film's leading man, the key anti-war message runs throughout its core. From the get-go, War Machine is narrated by Hastings' fictional replacement Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy), who stays true to the journalist's cynical ethos. Within the opening few scenes, Cullen remarks:
"There are two types of general in the American military. There are those who believe they can win in the face of all evidence to the contrary. And there are those who know they can't."
War Machine doesn't sit on the fence; instead, it plants its boots deep in the metaphorical Kabul desert sand from the outset. Hastings' voice is heard through Cullen's narration; he breaks down the structure of the Afghanistan War and the complexities of counterinsurgency, explaining that you "can't build a nation by invading it."
He highlights a member of the team, Matt Little, as a PR guru who doesn't believe in the conflict, but turns up because he is paid enough to sell it. While out on duty touring the nation, McMahon is told that heroin fields — under the direction of US military — remain the best business venture for growing the economy, as cotton farming would provide competition for American farmers.
The exploration of the intricacies of building a post-war economy don't stop with McMahon. Cpl. Billy Cole (Lakeith Stanfield) raises valid questions about "courageous restraint," a policy implemented by McChrystal with the intention of reducing civilian casualties. Courageous restraint meant that soldiers withheld fire, which in extreme cases would put them in harm's way, in order to avoid unwanted civilian deaths. In the film, Cole's own frustration later results in tragedy.
It's a shame that the tool used to promote the film also becomes its biggest downfall; amid the squints, the bumbles and the grotesque facial expressions, Pitt's Popeye-esque appearance detracts from War Machine's message, to the extent that certain scenes feel out of place and at odds with the seriousness of what the narrative is attempting to convey. The film loses its focus in a muddled middle ground between fact and satire — particularly scenes with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley).
McMahon Becomes A Man Hard To Hate
That's not to say #BradPitt is bad. His performance is solid and despite the film's anti-war sentiment, there's a surprising amount of sympathy for his character. He's painted as a perfectionist, a military man on a mission — the mission to win, but never the fool his outward appearance may suggest. War Machine makes it clear that the structure of the complex battle against Afghan insurgents simply doesn't fit McMahon's belief that winning is everything.
In fact, Tilda Swinton's limited appearance as a German politician questioning McMahon in Berlin exposes the attitude toward him. After explaining the need to avoid unnecessarily killing of insurgents, she calls him out, explaining that his "fetish for completion" is a problem, while highlighting that she believes McMahon himself is a good guy. After the Rolling Stone report is published, covering drunken bus tours and unsavory comments aimed at President Obama and his administration, there's no jubilation in McMahon's demise.
Unfortunately, War Machine's Achilles' heel returns at the end. After highlighting the errors of US foreign policy, reiterating its claim that counterinsurgency techniques don't work and that these lessons are set to be repeated unless more serious reflection takes place, McMahon's replacement is introduced under a veil of humor that dilutes the key message of the film.
The key objective, though, is whether Netflix's investment has paid off. Despite its flaws and unconvincing execution, War Machine is a movie made with deliberate political intent, carrying a message that may never have been delivered if it wasn't for that brazen newcomer stepping in.
It may make Hollywood feel uneasy. It may make festival circuits boo and hiss. But for audiences, Netflix's approach to telling stories heaped with risk, stories that turn the noses of conventional studios, is a welcome change. And fortunately for subscribers, the change that oiled the production of War Machine is just the beginning.
War Machine is now available for streaming. Is Netflix having a positive influence on Hollywood with films like this? Sound off in the comments below.