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The Hollow Skull of War

Still from “The War Machine.”

The War Machine, a Netflix original starring Brad Pitt, is the most important Hollywood movie since I don’t know when. David Michôd wrote and directed it based on a book by Michael Hastings. The book is an expansion of Hastings’s article for Rolling Stone that exposed General Stanley McChrystal as the person he is. Why does it not surprise me that Michôd is Australian?

The movie is a satire, but like the best satires, it satirizes by holding its subject up to a mirror. The McChrystal stand-in, played by Pitt, is named Glen McMahon. He is a warrior, a man with great ambition who wants to win in Afghanistan. It is hard to imagine what in his character those who panned the movie object to. He arrives believing that a lack of leadership, that is himself, is the reason the war hasn’t been won. This does not seem to be an outlandish characterization or much different from how he would present himself, and yet it is a symptom of madness. As the movie quickly reveals, the war is an attempt to make friends with people by killing them. The Taliban are just the local Pashtun population.

The war cannot be won. To even articulate its aims is to reveal ones own insanity. Winning has no meaning, so wanting to win is hopeless confusion. Democracy and voting are meaningless since warlords have real power. The people you are fighting and trying to help are the same. McMahon himself points out that killing “insurgents” just makes more of them. Nevertheless, McMahon wants to win. The movie is the story of how McMahon first gathers the resources and then attacks an empty village in Helmand Province, takes control of nothing, and screws that up all in the service of a delusional aim.

The patched-together slipshod desultory participation of the other members of the coalition of the willing only reveal one more level of wing nut leadership. Their token reluctant participation combined with their contradictory aims creates an alliance of parties who could not exist in the same room together. The coalition is just one more coating of delusion slapped on to cover the moronic truth. Obama, eyes on election as always and knowing, but not of course saying, that the war is hopeless, refuses to give McMahon the troops he wants. It is obvious to anyone who looks at the situation that the longer we stay the worse it will get. None of that penetrates McMahon’s thick skull. And isn’t this nothing more than what happens in the real hallowed halls when the Nincomcons “double down”?

Michôd’s restraint is wonderful. No one lapses into caricature that would destroy the movie though Brad Pitt comes close. Two cameos, by Ben Kingsley and Tilda Swinton, are terrific. If there is any fault in the movie it is that McMahon can still crawl away after Swinton’s character’s beat down. Both of these cameos are more passionate than anything I have seen on the screen in a long time, if ever. And either is worth the time to watch the movie.

Critics who panned this movie must seriously be considered stoogified. They never ask the right question, as the movie itself predicts. They complain about this that or the other. Whether they know which side their bread is buttered on or have simply imbibed stooge belief on campus hardly matters. They are stoogified.

All movie critics suffer from an aesthetic perspective, a symptom of the ailment on display in the movie. Nothing gets to them. They are simply judges, people with, supposedly, taste. Was it good? Was it bad? On to the next. In all fairness for most movies that question, tepid as it is, is all that is worth asking, and usually not even that. They judge froth by its artistry. By those criteria, this movie should pass muster in spades. It is brilliantly made and the actors are astonishing. But one must let artistry perform its magic to see it properly. When you do you see a civilization, our own, in an advanced state of decay in a way that you cannot doubt. It is hard to not think that a critic who panned the movie is trying, pointlessly, to still hide this fact. For as with any real art, this movie wounds you, perhaps fatally. A pan of this movie is an act of propaganda.

With skull so thick it is impervious to facts, McMahon exhibits a stage of decay well beyond venality and viciousness, a sort of living mummification. His interaction with his wife, played by an unrecognizable Meg Tilly, is so lifeless that it seems to happen in outer space. Swinton’s character exposes McMahon, and his face becomes a mask that dissolves to reveal the hollow skull. Brad Pitt here is superb.

Periodically throughout the movie McMahon is seen jogging aggressively. This aggressive expense of energy to no purpose is a visual refrain, an epitaph for an experiment in civilization that proved less than noble.

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Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College.

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