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Movies in the time of war

A relatively quiet story surfaced this week and was quickly buried under drifts of swiftly accumulating breaking news: The Trump administration is contemplating a new troop surge in Afghanistan, as the United States enters its 16th year of conflict in that country. For many observers, the announcement raised yet more questions about the ideological underpinnings and policy parameters – indeed, even the very existence – of a Trump Doctrine.

For a much smaller cohort, that speculation invited another, admittedly less pressing subject for discussion: What will Trump Doctrine movies look like?

Films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be roughly categorised in two categories: Fouled-Up-Beyond-All-Recognition absurdism and the Cult of the Operator. The finest example of the former genre was actually made at the end of the Clinton era: David O. Russell’s Three Kings, which takes place during the 1991 Gulf War, set the gold standard for expertly deployed irony, its depiction of mercenary fervour and misplaced ideals earning it pride of place alongside such formative wartime satires as Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and M.A.S.H. Although filmmakers attempted those heights in subsequent attempts at gonzo nihilism (the lamentable Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and the downright offensive Rock the Kasbah and War Dogs), the so-called war on terror never produced sophisticated parody on a par with Russell’s caustic masterpiece.

But what was left? In a post-Vietnam era when patriotic wholesomeness and unabashed jingoism could no longer be accepted at face value, Hollywood made movies that largely avoided explicit political stands and simply valorised the professionalism of the troops (and, by extension, the fecklessness of the political class putting them in harm’s way). Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal won the Oscar in 2009 for The Hurt Locker, a brilliant portrait of a bomb technician that subtly questioned the Iraq War, but concentrated its focus on the competence, physical courage and dedication.

A series of like-minded films followed – from Bigelow and Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty to Lone Survivor and American Sniper – as did a startling piece of Pentagon-approved propaganda, the Navy SEAL adventure Act of Valor (conceived as both Hollywood blockbuster and recruiting tool). Filmmakers have used the contours of psychological thrillers to explore war’s ethical quandaries, such as the drone-themed Good Kill and Eye in the Sky, as well as this weekend’s sniper standoff  The Wall. And, of course, they’ve milked wartime for pure action: Michael Bay’s 2016 Benghazi movie 13 Hours infused the Cult of the Operator with characteristic bro-down swagger, while taking contemptuous swipes at the pencil-necked civilian geeks they lost their lives protecting.

The new Brad Pitt movie War Machine makes similar comic hay of the brass-vs.-Beltway dynamic, but as a way to suggest that old vernaculars may no longer be that useful. The film, which will premiere on Netflix later this month, stars Pitt as Gen. Glen McMahon, a thinly disguised version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as he assumes leadership of the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan in 2009. Inspired by Michael Hastings’s book The Operators – which itself was based on Hastings’ Rolling Stone exposé that led to McChrystal’s dismissal in 2010 – War Machine will probably be of interest less for Pitt’s Patton-esque depiction of McChrystal than Anthony Michael Hall’s portrayal of a character based on McChrystal’s most ardent loyalist, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Rather than McChrystal, who has largely disappeared from public view, it’s Flynn – who was fired from his post as national security adviser for lying about his contacts with a Russian official – who has accidentally emerged as the film’s most newsworthy character, his exploits part of an ongoing inquiry into the Trump-Russia connection that continues to reverberate after the sudden firing of FBI Director James B. Comey.

But if War Machine feels strangely prescient, it’s less because of its present-day pings with Flynn and the new Afghanistan surge than its temperament, which strikes a novel, occasionally uneasy balance between farce and something more pensive. Netflix is marketing the movie as a dark comedy, and writer-director David Michôd is clearly informed by the deadpan humour of Hastings’ journalism. But the movie’s most effective sequences are reserved for a US military that has become a de facto state-building entity, putting troops in the impossible position of killing civilian opponents and helping civilian allies, without knowing which is which. War Machine’s best scenes aren’t played for laughs. They linger with a grievous sense of loss.

As both a solemn reflection on – and funhouse reflection of – recent history, War Machine turns out to be surprisingly apt for a time when breaking news continually invites us either to mock or to mourn – or do both simultaneously. We’re at a point when nothing can be normalised, least of all war; when glib cynicism feels utterly inadequate to the moment and vicarious hero worship isn’t credible, or earned.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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