War Machine is a $60 million Afghanistan War satire starring Brad Pitt and directed by Animal Kingdom’s David Michôd, and, as befitting its scale and pedigree, it’s opening on one of the most hotly contested box-office weekends of the year—Memorial Day—opposite competing Hollywood goliaths Baywatch and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. None of that is, in and of itself, shocking news. What is notable about this A-list project, however, is the way in which audiences will see it. That’s because it’s the most high-profile original film to date from Netflix, which will be premiering it worldwide on its streaming platform on the same morning it arrives in select U.S. theaters.
As anyone interested in movies now knows, Netflix is eager to be not only a one-stop shop for TV and movies, but a veritable studio unto itself. However, unlike its Hollywood compatriots, it controls the means of both production and distribution. The company’s decision to debut its films day-and-date online, thus bypassing the traditional model that’s governed the business since the advent of home-video—namely, that movies are given a months-long theatrical window before arriving in your living room—has rankled more than a few industry heavyweights. That was never more apparent than last week, when Netflix unveiled two features (Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories) at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Because of France’s Media Chronology Law stipulating that movies cannot appear on digital or Blu-ray/DVD until 36 months after their theatrical opening, the inclusion of these titles was seen by some as a severe infraction: Festival officials announced that no streaming-only films would compete for Cannes’ Palm d’Or prize in the future, while jury president Pedro Almodovar voiced his displeasure—much to Netflix-friendly jury member Will Smith’s chagrin—at the new world order being fostered by the company.
Thus, War Machine, a fictionalized adaptation of the late Michael Hastings’ 2012 book The Operators, arrives at a fraught moment in time, and its 44-year-old Australian director confesses that he’s fine with watching the Cannes fracas from a remove. “It’s been fascinating to watch, in these early days, how those other two Netflix films have been received by the festival and then, obviously, by French exhibitors. To be watching it from afar is not a bad place to be,” he tells The Daily Beast. “In a strange way, everything about the way War Machine was made felt outside the normal functioning of the established institutions. We kind of wanted to see that all the way through. To embrace the brave new world, and to release the movie outside of the normal festival circuit, and to just see how it plays. So I’m glad I’m not at Cannes, in a way [laughs], and having to engage in this tussle.”
Nonetheless, he thinks it’s easy to comprehend the imprudence of Cannes’ attitude, especially with regard to itself. “You can see, we’re looking at a radically changing landscape, and shifts and adjustments and compromises are going to need to be made. From my perspective, if there’s a consequence of all of this stuff, and Cannes finds itself in a position where it has to shut itself off from those movies that are being made by these streaming studios, they may end up denying themselves some of the most interesting movies being made in the world today. I don’t think there’s any denying that that would be a shame.”
Michôd is clearly content with his decision (along with Pitt and his Plan B Pictures, which first brought him the material) to go the Netflix route, and watching War Machine, it’s easy to see why. Far from a conventional commercial venture, Michôd’s film is at once a goofball comedy and a sobering portrait of wartime horrors and the delusional thinking and misplaced idealism that, it argues, is driving the war on terror. Focusing on Pitt’s Gen. Glen McMahon (based on the real-life Gen. Stanley McChrystal), a no-nonsense military star who squints like Popeye, talks like he just swallowed a fistful of gravel, and runs as if his arms are broken and a stick is lodged where the sun don’t shine, it’s a schizophrenic work, and one whose tonal shifts are, according to the director, part of what attracted him to (and ultimately define) the film.
Thus, Hollywood simply wasn’t the place for it. “We knew from the outset, given the nature of the movie, it was going to be potentially politically contentious, and that the creative execution of it was going to be bold. And, thus, that it was going to be a difficult proposition for the traditional Hollywood studios,” Michôd offers. “The movie was always going to be a risky proposition. So we just decided, very early on, the second we got a sniff of Hollywood risk aversion, to take it somewhere that felt equally bold and brazen. On a career level, the Netflix window has been a really beautiful one to open for me. Because my aspiration is to make movies that are big and bold and unusual, and there aren’t many places in the world left to get those movies made.”
In this case, the type of movie Michôd wanted to make was a dark satire that, though set in a contemporary conflict, had the resonance of arguably the genre’s finest absurdist work. “The closest parallel for me was wanting to make a film that felt like the novel Catch-22—the way it felt when I read it. The [Catch-22] film exists in a world of pretty relentless super-heightened goofy comedy. But I remember that the power of Joseph Heller’s book lies in the ways in which its horror creeps up on you… In a way, my aspiration was to try and make a film that felt like that book feels.”
For all of its ridiculousness, the best coming during meetings between Pitt’s McMahon and Ben Kingsley’s former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai—who delivers the script’s funniest line when he opines, “I am behaving like a leader: I’m unavailable”—War Machine is anything but a feel-good affair. While taking pains to illustrate the noble anti-extremism intentions of its various Western coalition powers, the film is truly about the practical limits (and outright hazards) of trying to achieve those lofty goals. Unsurprisingly, then, the director finds it all too relevant even today.
“The great sadness and the great concern is that we—and by we, I mean the United States and its allies, including my great country, Australia—are not only still at war in Afghanistan, but that this ‘War on Terror’ has expanded now to six or seven other different countries. And it’s shocking to me how seemingly un-newsworthy this stuff is.”
Which isn’t to say, however, that War Machine is a partisan polemic; rather, Michôd views it as a more overarching call-to-arms against a mind-set that’s taken ahold of both Democrats and Republicans alike. “As nuts and terrifyingly volatile as the current [Trump] administration feels, this movie has never really felt to me like a left-versus-right movie,” he says. “I think that everything that’s relevant about this movie today would be equally relevant if Hillary Clinton had won the election. The questions that this movie is asking are about the limits of Western power, and how we should be using that power. To ask questions about whether or not our current use of that power is actually making the world a much more dangerous place than it was before 9/11.”
Tough questions such as those are now apparently best asked in the streaming-cinema arena. And Michôd, for one, isn’t afraid to answer whether or not he’d return to that realm for future projects, stating: “Absolutely. The beautiful thing about this experience for me has been freedom and support. When you embark on an endeavor of this nature, with the aspiration of making a film that doesn’t feel just like every other movie, you need partners who are willing to let you off the leash. Because that aspiration will not work well with a risk-averse, art-by-committee mentality.”