Sadly, people are debating about whether to release any movie smaller than “Transformers”-size in a theater at all. Some argue that small and mid-size movies will be seen by a wider audience if they just stream on various platforms or Video-On Demand, but to me that would basically symbolize the death of independent cinema and a lot of my interest in going to a movie theater. Plus, if streaming really is the new king, they may have to do better than this pair of true stories starring A-list talent that are only kind-of successful.
War Machine…This movie is clearly based off General Stanley McChrystal taking over Afghanistan before being fired over a Rolling Stone interview that pretty much had nothing to do with his success as a General. It can be argued that McChrystal’s sacking was one of Obama’s biggest mistakes, but the film is a little too glib and self-satisfied to really dive deep into any of it. It’s aiming for a more broadly comedic approach, and that’s why Brad Pitt has been asked to play McChrystal (in the film called “General McMahon,” for some reason) as a variation on his “Inglorious Basterds” commander that runs like “Forest Gump.”
The movie works better as a straight comedy, like a hilariously sycophantic Anthony Michael Hall as a Michael Flynn-esque General or Ben Kingsley’s too-brief cameo as a beyond worthless Hamid Karzai. It’s just when the movie works a little too hard to make the case against counter-insurgency—despite the movie’s claims, the strategy is more mixed than a certain-failure, as Smedly Butler’s banana wars, MacArthur’s Japan, and puppet governments set up throughout Latin America, the Reconstruction-era Southeast, and previously the Middle East demonstrate—that you really see the strain. At one point, Tilda Swinton pops up in a cameo as a German official to tear apart McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy perhaps forgetting post WWII Germany leading to the ground she’s standing on and being the most successful example ever of the strategy “McMahon” is advocating. [I know, I know, Afghanistan is no Germany, but the film’s understanding of military strategy makes no distinction at all between Afghanistan and any other country, ironically America’s same mistake.] And Scoot McNairy’s annoyingly smug narrator (based off Stone reporter Michael Hastings) pulls off the miraculous feat of making a Southern accent seem persnickety. Grade: C+
The Wizard of Lies…More successful, but still flawed, this Bernie Madoff-biopic almost goes too far in the opposite direction of “War Machine.” Whereas that film would have benefitted from a more thoughtful approach, the absurdity of Madoff’s crimes would’ve been ripe for a tragicomic take rather than this sometimes overly dour film. Even when Madoff is riding high on his 60-billion plus ponzi scheme, De Niro plays him as one of his badgering working-class bullies gone wonky, and his family seems a little too grim for the lavish celebrations they’re throwing. Although De Niro fully commits, and is mesmerizingly intense in the role, you have to question if the real-life Madoff wouldn’t have had more charm to pull off this scheme. Interviews with the real Bernie reveal a more bemused aloofness that lets you see how he could’ve been confident enough to fool people for so long.
Once again, supporting characters steal the movie as Hank Azaria juices every scene he’s in as one of Bernie’s most loyal (and colorful) underlings, Kristen Connolly makes the most of a loyal wife role, and a chameleonic Michelle Pfeiffer plays Ruth Madoff as a “Grey Gardens”-esque figure of sympathetic, frustrating obliviousness. Plus, the movie looks terrific, an austere color palette that lets the dread slowly simmer and leach the vibrancy out of every scene. Grade: B