First thing to remember is this is a black satire not a documentary. Next is that it is a black satire based on the term of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Yeah the one that oddly shot his mouth off to a Rolling Stone reporter then lost his job.
There were three levels of this movie watching for me on this. One was the satire – great movie on that Pitt does well over playing McChrystal’s quirks just enough without going too far. However like all black satires on war when the actual war starts and innocents die it’s not so funny any more. They play it well and respectfully but even the character General sees it’s not how you win hearts and minds. Second was watching my military men watch the movie. Aaron grinned at some of the send ups of Army gung-ho-ness without reason. Mike chuckled at the send ups of command, relationship with politics and military senior officers. Third was my thoughts on just what do we do now in Iraq? Deep thoughts, sobering thoughts, and no answers.
First as a movie. The central character is the General who is sent by Obama to straighten out Afghanistan and get us out of there with a win. He’s sure he can do it and goes in doing a tour of the country to hear about the problems. They are growing poppies but cotton would be a great crop here but can’t help them grow it because it puts them in direct competition with US farmers on the world cotton market so we grow heroin. He hears how the cursing of the troops upsets village elders. He goes to Hamid Karzai and tells him of the General’s new plan to kick out the terrorist and unify the country to get jobs and bring democracy and prosperity to the people of Afghanistan. To which Karzai (played wonderfully by Sir Ben Kingsley) says “Sounds like the old plan.” The rest of the movie is the General slowly realizing this isn’t the war he trained for, it’s different. He’s not breaking new ground but treading on ground that’s been done before. In the end he and the staff he’s brought along are his undoing as they tread Europe trying to get enough troops to control an area that as those who have been there assure him has nothing and is of no value. A German representative played by Tilda Swinton points out the very issues with General’s approach. The futility of it all is highlighted as Bob (aka Petraeus) played by Russel Crowe comes marching through the airport to take the General’s place and fix the issue and it all starts again.
So it’s true that yes generals pull men up with them as staff. Maybe they aren’t as much sycophants as played in the satire but they are ego strokers. These guys are the rock stars of the military and have their posse for lack of a better term. Yes the go do it mentality is there much as illustrated when the frustrated Marine tried to explain with insurgents he can’t tell whose the bad one and whose the one he’s to protect. The General’s answer of ‘get your head on straight’ is the typical send up of do the job with no instruction on how. While all of these seemed to hold a grain of truth they aren’t the whole story. Satire does what it does taking the bit of truth and warping it so we see the absurdity. I think that’s what was amusing at points to the guys but thinking this is a real portrayal is far off base.
Yet as I always wonder about satire did it point out some truths we need to really ponder? Is our idea of leadership the only valid idea of leadership?
Don’t the generals need doses of reality beyond the ego stroking staff? How much stroking goes on really? Are they so out of touch that drinking and shooting their mouth off to reporters is okay? Why does a leader get so shitfaced any way? or allow his staff to do so especially with a reporter while internationally negotiating for more troops in a years long war? Or get so cozy with their lover/biographer to share classified information? Aren’t these issues signs of just what the satire is point out? I won’t even get into the issue Swinton’s character brought up for thought – you can’t force peace onto a village who doesn’t want your soldiers there to begin with, or pull out leave and void that is filled with radicals. Yeah chew on that concept for a while and see where you get. I didn’t get anywhere but back to my tail again.
There are no easy answers to the questions the film raises. It’s not meant to answer them but amuse, entertain, and encourage you to do some research and think about the issues in Afghanistan then and now. In the end I think the one central question of the film is ‘should we learn from our own mistakes?’ I think we can all agree on yes we should. Now to settle the hard question – what is it we’ve learned from those mistakes? The movie is good it’s the questions you’re left pondering later that are disturbing.