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‘War Machine’ Takes Satirical Shot at War in Afghanistan, McChrystal’s Fall

Netflix film enlists Brad Pitt in take on game-changing article by late journalist Michael Hastings.

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Netflix’s War Machine is billed as a political satire about the disconnect between the upper levels of the armed forces and the troops on the ground during the War in Afghanistan. But the first time Elise Jordan—the widow of journalist Michael Hastings, who wrote the book on which the movie’s based—watched it in a New York screening room in March, it felt more like sitting through an intense emotional drama.

That’s not a reflection on the quality of the film that hits the streaming video service Friday.

Getting the film made is the culmination of Jordan’s journey over several years to get her late husband’s 2012 book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan—itself based on the article he wrote for Rolling Stone two years earlier—adapted for the silver screen. The article, which chronicled the hubris of U.S. General Stanley McChrystal and his inner circle, forced the Obama Administration to overhaul its Afghan strategy, and the president to ultimately fire McChrystal.

And now Hastings’ work is finally ready for its closeup.

“It is bittersweet just because I would have liked so much for Michael to have been able to see his work on the big screen in such an amazing film,” Jordan told RealClearLife. “But at the same time, the grief is balanced being so proud of him.

“I hope that audiences and the American public will think a little bit more about the wars in which we send our young men and women to fight on our behalf,” said Jordan, herself an analyst for MSNBC.

The result is a war movie that is more Catch-22 than Platoon. Brad Pitt stars as a thinly-veiled stand-in for McChrystal, who is as patriotic and driven as he is disconnected from the local culture. Which makes for plenty of comic absurdity.

Brad Pitt and Sir Ben Kingsley in Netflix’s ‘War Machine’

“My experience with movies [is that] generally all biopics are basically works of fiction—[so] it seemed to me more honest to state that from the outset,” said director David Michod. “But more importantly, I knew when I read Michael’s book that the movie I wanted to make wasn’t about one particular guy. And certainly not one real-life individual.

“I wanted to make a movie about an entire system.”

Not everyone will find War Machine funny. There are many in Washington and beyond that still resent Hastings for bringing down a career soldier by accurately reporting the disparaging remarks his team was making about the president and vice president and their government’s policies. His role in McChrystal’s ouster was so controversial that there are conspiracy theorists that believe the fiery crash that killed Hastings in 2013 was no accident.

“Michael really liked all the guys; it wasn’t anything personal, he was doing his job, and his job was to report what he saw and to be honest,” said Jordan. “You can empathize but at the end of the day, we all have our jobs that we have to do as reporters.

“He was impressed wth their passion and their commitment and just the effort they were putting into trying to fight the war. He just disagreed with the conclusions he had drawn about their strategy.”

Not that it wasn’t a dangerous choice to make: When the story broke, Hastings was embedded in Kandahar on a story for Men’s Journal, and the military public affairs officer forced him to start the several-stage evacuation out of the country for his own safety.

At a time when the movie-watching audience is as divided as ever politically, there is also the potential for conservative critics to dismiss War Machine as an anti-military film without seeing a frame. (No one is going to confuse Pitt for John Wayne.)

But Michod stresses the themes of the movie would have been as relevant if last November’s election went a different way. “On a certain level, this movie feels as timely as it ever did, and on another, it’s been timely for 16 years,” said Michod. “I’m sitting here talking to you today and this quote-unquote ‘war on terror’ is being fought in seven different countries and yet we barely talk about it.

“What’s going on in the White House seems to be sucking up all our bandwidth while America has been at war and has been for as long as it has ever been before.”

Michael Hastings
Michael Hastings, pictured in 2012, wrote the now legendary Rolling Stone article two years earlier. (Getty Images)

Just how dangerous the region still is became clear when the production deployed overseas. “Trying to work out where to shoot the movie, it became apparent to us that this time all those old go-to places like Morocco and Jordan were not safe to be there for months at a time.”

It turns out, like paparazzi, terrorists might have a fixation on Brad Pitt, too.

So they settled on Abu Dhabi, where there was a surplus of old American military helicopters and Humvees to borrow for filming and the requisite 112-degree heat to make those actors dressed as soldiers look like they’re in hell. Michod says they couldn’t have gotten any of it done without Netflix, which pumped $50 million into the project. That, and Hollywood studios would’ve likely viewed a war satire as a live grenade.

Jordan would like to think that Hastings would be proud of the result.

“After he died, one of the things I wanted so badly for his legacy was this film to be made,” she said. “So I’m grateful that the producers saw this movie through to see to the end.”