'War Machine' director David Michôd on an endless war, Netflix and that "Obama" cameo

While everyone at the Cannes Film Festival is busy debating the merits of direct-to-Netflix movie releases, the streaming service has dropped one of its most ambitious films to date, a feature headlined by none other than Brad Pitt. Now, a Pitt-starring film titled War Machine might sound like one of two things: a Marvel spinoff for the Iron Man sidekick or a gritty war drama. 

(Editor's note: Spoilers for War Machine ahead).  

But War Machine, now available on Netflix and in theaters, is neither. From Australian director David Michôd, the film is an examination of the ongoing, seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, loosely adapted from the 2012 novel The Operators written by the late Michael Hastings. War Machine rarely leaves the orbit of the man charged with overseeing the war, Gen. Glen McMahon, played by Pitt — the character's a fictitious general adapted from the book's real-life subject, Gen. Stanley McChrystal

As a result, the film plays like a workplace satire rife with military incompetence. Pitt's character is intentionally and hilariously cartoonish: The film opens with McMahon using an airport bathroom before he confidently marches toward his destination of Afghanistan. When the film does occasionally leave McMahon's side, viewers get a more traditional picture of war and its harsh consequences on a country, its citizens and the men on the ground fighting it. 

But War Machine isn't just an indictment of the military's higher-ups. Its depiction of former President Barack Obama — who's played by an impressive stand-in for a brief cameo — is not a flattering one, as he continuously snubs McMahon and his suggestions to win the war. McMahon's own hubris eventually gets the better of him; if you know the saga of the real-life McChrystal, he was unceremoniously fired for ranting about Obama and the Afghanistan operation to Hastings, who documented his comments in a Rolling Stone article. Will new leadership result in a faster end to the war? War Machine closes with another general — a bit cameo from Russell Crowe — swaggering in to take McMahon's place at the airport in the exact same fashion. The message is simple, but striking: No, new leadership won't change a thing. 

In a phone interview with Mic, Michôd discussed what drew him to making a movie about the war in Afghanistan, the advantages of releasing a film on Netflix and that unflattering "Obama" cameo. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Michôd on the set of 'War Machine'Francois Duhamel/Netflix

Mic: As a non-American, what drew you to a story about the war in Afghanistan?

David Michôd: I've been thinking about making a movie about one of these contemporary theaters of war for quite a while. Not because I have some particular interest in the American military; it's more because these wars have changed the world. And they very much feel to me like they have affected the position of my own country in the world as well. We're in there; we're still in Afghanistan with you.

The Australian military is intertwined with the American military. We have fought alongside America in every major conflict since World War I — we were there in Vietnam, we were there in Iraq. Where America goes, we go. On a certain level, yes, this movie feels to me [like] I am an outsider looking in at the culture of the American military. At the same time, it feels like there is no part of me that feels like I don't have a right to speak. We have become, almost by default, a kind of fundamental part of the American war machine.   

The film toes the line between satire and drama. What were some of the challenges in balancing those styles, especially in the guise of war?

DM: The thing that excited me about the idea of making this film was that very challenge. America has a long and rich history of war comedy, but it's a form that has been noticeably quiet of late, and troublingly so. 

What was exciting to me was the idea of making a film that somehow brought these two together, but brought them together uncomfortably, in a deliberately uncomfortable way. I saw an opportunity to make a film about the entire machine, about the various strata of upper and middle management and the boots on the ground. It felt very important to me that the movie I make has these distinct tonal shifts between the hubris and delusion of the upper management and the sadness and gravity on the ground of the consequences of those decisions made by that upper management.

Yeah, it presents a challenge, but in other respects I was always quite clear about the fact that I wasn't looking for a kind of tonal middle ground to occupy. I wanted the movie to be mentally unhinged.

The film is simultaneously being released on Netflix and in theaters, which is still a very rare thing. What are the advantages of releasing a film on a streaming service like Netflix?

DM: The clearest advantage is that people can watch it straightaway, when they want to. The movie doesn't become about a Monday morning headline about your success or failure at that weekend's box office. I miss the old days of slow, platformed releases and of an uncrowded theater landscape that allowed you to find movies. Now everything is so, so dense, so overpopulated and so marketed to death that movies live and die in the blink of an eye. I don't think it's good for them and I certainly don't think it's good for the interesting ones.

On Netflix, the movie is there and I want people to see it. I want to do everything I can to let them know that it exists. On Netflix, it's not going anywhere, you know? It's not going away.

Brad Pitt is, um, quite colorful in 'War Machine.'Francois Duhamel/Netflix

Pitt's character is so over-the-top, he feels like someone plucked from World War II. How much of his character — like his funky accent and cadences — was left for him to improvise? What were some of the notes you gave him for the character?

DM: We were pretty clear upfront that in order to let the movie feel mentally unhinged the way we wanted, that we would be best served by letting the two tonal extremes play as extremes. To let the upper echelon kind of be like a big circus and to play the boots on the ground with a certain reverence and gravity.  

In order to achieve that, we felt it was necessary to let that character, Brad's character, off the leash. To let it be a gigantic, almost cartoon of a World War II general. A character who imagines himself sitting in a long lineage of great American war leaders, who sees himself as a 21st-century Patton or MacArthur. Once Brad found that — and he found it quite quickly, 'cause we understood it — he had wiggle room to play.

I still think that 98% of it was on the page, but there was virtually nothing that Brad offered up that wasn't great.

War Machine features a brief "Obama" cameo thanks to a convincing stand-in, and I think viewers might be surprised to see it's not the most flattering depiction of our former president. How do you think people will respond to that?

DM: I don't know, to be honest. Once upon a time, we imagined that we would release this film last year, in about September. And it quickly became apparent to us that was probably a bad idea. The atmosphere was too electric, the lead-up to that election was so incendiary that it felt like a bad idea to throw a movie like this into that mix. And partly for [the depiction of Obama]. 

To release a movie in which characters, even just like obviously insane, reactionary characters, speaking ill of Obama felt like something that would be confusing at best and totally misread at worst only a few months ago. But having said that, I have no qualms about painting a portrait of Obama that isn't entirely flattering, because for me this movie isn't about left or right. It's about the military and its relationship with the civilian executives, regardless of the side of the political fence that the administration sits on.

Obama was a war president. He's the first two-term [president] to be at war for the entire duration of his presidency. And once he said he'd recall his troops and, by extension, his allies out of Iraq, he expanded this so-called "war on terror" at the same time. To an extent, with drones and airstrikes and counter-terrorism exercises that it's now become almost unremarkable that we are at war, and it almost feels like we will be at war forever and we are at war in places that most people probably don't even know about. Airstrikes are happening every day that go unreported. All of that shit to me is terrifying.

And yes, I miss him — especially in the current climate. But if he had somehow been allowed to serve a third term, this movie would still be entirely relevant.

The final scene of War Machine is really telling, with "Gen. Russell Crowe" charging in with the same swagger as McMahon, but we know from McMahon's experience that it'll probably be futile. What's the parting message you want viewers to take away about the war in Afghanistan?

DM: That there is a very clear and frightening circularity to the way this war — the one specifically in Afghanistan — has been fought for 16 years now. It's just a constant succession of top brass military ascension, futility, failure and then the next guy comes in.

We made a conscious effort early on, a deliberate vision to change the name of the characters from Hasting's book. In part it was because I just wanted the creative wiggle room that would allow. But also because I didn't want this to be seen as a biopic of one particular guy. I didn't want it to be a kind of public evisceration of a specific individual. 

For me, the movie is about an entire machine — about a machine that has its own momentum — and that has a certain circularity that is more troubling to me than the actions or behavior of any one particular individual.  

War Machine is currently playing in theaters and is available to stream on Netflix.  

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