Brad Pitt’s ‘War Machine’ fizzles on Netflix

Brad Pitt’s ‘War Machine’ fizzles on Netflix
Netflix/Francis Duhamel via CNN

Throwing around money to demonstrate its commitment to the movie business, Netflix has rented Brad Pitt. That’s the main headline to take from “War Machine,” a muddled satire about the war in Afghanistan awkwardly forced to camouflage its lead character behind a pseudonym.

“War Machine” might yearn to be “Wag the Dog” in terms of focusing a jaundiced eye on 21st-century U.S. military adventures abroad. But it’s really just a Hollywood example of that movie’s principle — with marquee value, in this case, acting as the tail in this Pitt-powered vehicle.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the subject of the book and Rolling Stone article on which the film is based, has thus become Gen. Glen McMahon, who Pitt plays with a perpetual snarl and not much in the way of nuance. Yet he is surrounded by real-life figures, including President Obama, who accepted McChrystal’s resignation after the controversial magazine profile appeared in 2010.

The fictionalized aspect of what is now “inspired by” the book has provided writer-director David Michod more latitude to embellish events, without fear of litigation. But the satirical components feel culled from a very old playbook, filled as it is with tired insights about the fruitlessness of seeking to export democracy.

“The thing about counter-insurgency is that it doesn’t really work,” the narrator, only identified much later, explains near the outset. “You can’t build a nation at gunpoint.”

That world-weary attitude isn’t embraced by the can-do McMahon, who announces upon arriving in Afghanistan, “I came here to win.” Alas, his plan doesn’t receive much support from either the Afghani government (Ben Kingsley appears, briefly, as leader Hamid Karzai) or the administration, which is eager to find a way out and irritated as the general keeps pushing forward.

McMahon’s staff — played by the likes of Anthony Michael Hall and Topher Grace in under-written roles — is intensely loyal, so much so that they join in freely belittling the president and vice president within earshot of the Rolling Stone reporter (Scoot McNairy). Their constant reinforcement only feeds their boss’ hubris, prompting him to do self-destructive things like seek a “60 Minutes” interview and leak an assessment of conditions contrary to the White House’s wishes.

Still, the idea of a military man being undone by his ego hardly represents a newsflash, and the fictionalized nature of the story undercuts whatever fly-on-the-wall allure this peek into the war room provides.

As for Pitt (who also produced the film), the most distinctive flourish he brings to his character is the peculiar run he affects for McMahon, a physical-fitness nut, on his morning jogs. It’s enough to make one yearn for his toothy performance in “Inglourious Basterds.”

Having conquered television, Netflix has embarked on ambitious plans to become a major player in movies, including its deal with Adam Sandler. Anteing up to put Pitt on billboards marks another lurching step in that direction, but “War Machine” comes across as a semi-defective cog in that larger campaign.

“War Machine” premieres May 26 on Netflix.