War Dogs strikes me as one of the most underrated films of 2016.
Now, it might seem contradictory to say the film is underrated while giving it a mediocre 3 out of 5 stars. Strictly speaking, if you convert those stars into percentages, they match Rotten Tomatoes’ 60%. I am large, I contain multitudes. War Dogs is not a great film, but it’s better than you might expect.
War Dogs‘ box office performance was disappointing compared with writer-director Todd Phillips’ previous efforts, Due Date and the Hangover films. The director of such mindless bro-comedy might seem wrong for this subject matter. Rotten Tomatoes describes War Dogs as ‘a lightly entertaining look at troubling real-world events’. Reviews often referred to it as a ‘war film’ (it isn’t). Who wants to see The Hangover as a war film? Can anyone imagine a worse insult to humanity?
In case you don’t know the basic concept, War Dogs concerns a pair of friends who make a killing in the (Dubya) Iraq War arms trade. This story is (loosely) based on fact, with the background that the arms trade was opened up to small-business competition after Dick Cheney had overseen dubious monopolistic behaviour.
The tone of the film is perhaps best captured when Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) cries ‘God bless Dick Cheney’s America!’ as humvees and attack helicopters roar past. Hill’s Efraim is no Republican, he is simply an opportunist, profiting from the war, revelling in his own cynicism.
Anyone who remembers ‘Cheney’s America’ should recognise something in this story. Dubya and Cheney’s America was a shameless, profitable atrocity defended by bald-faced liars. This America was not contained by the borders of the USA. As a New Zealander, my country did not officially send troops to Iraq, but sent contractors – fitting into a global process known as the ‘privatisation of war’. Cheney’s America was global, as vultures from around the world encircled Iraq’s carcass.
In capturing that strange moment, War Dogs harks back not to the war genre, but to the gangster genre. This, I think, is its strength. Hill’s Efraim explicitly models himself on Al Pacino’s Scarface, and his journey follows the tragic rise and fall typical of the gangster genre. While Scarface concerns the rise of a Cuban refugee, War Dogs concerns the rise of a Jewish small-business owner, with a similar sense of individual revanchism. This is not a film about war, it is a film about a gangster who happens to trade in weapons.
In making a film about war profiteering that is utterly unconcerned with war, Todd Phillips captures something that no amount of soldier narratives can capture. Whether patriotic or critical, soldier narratives foster the illusion of overcoming distance from war. War Dogs instead allows that distance, with a sense of detachment or alienation that is presumably more familiar to ‘Western’ audiences. For those who profit, war is background noise. The leads in War Dogs make no attempt to justify war. At one point during a weapons expo, the camera briefly pans by anti-war protestors in the background (I obnoxiously whispered “that’s me!” in the cinema), their objections ignored. Even the exchange of weapons-as-commodities takes place over the internet, so the leads do not physically interact with the weapons. The characters play a central part in war, supplying the necessary tools, yet they remain safely in Miami. Consequences are outsourced, evil is banal.
Of course, the tragic thrust of the gangster genre means this bubble must burst.
Jonah Hill’s performance, as critics note, is the stand-out here. Rather than abandon his comedic roots, he deepens them in a tragicomic portrayal of a willfully arrogant, attractively amoral man-child. Although he shows flashes of fear and vulnerability, he never shows true concern for another human being, even his closest friend. Unfortunately, his other half, played by Miles Teller, does not live up to the dramatic standard set by Hill.
Bradley Cooper’s straight man was always the least interesting part of the Hangover series, and War Dogs‘ ostensible lead character David Packouz (Miles Teller) occupies that same thankless role here. We are theoretically expected to sympathise with his moral conflict, in contrast to Hill’s amorality. The writing and performance fail to give any gravity to his dilemma, particularly since he seems more worried about getting caught than doing anything wrong – is he really any better than his friend?
In the end (SPOILER ALERT), Teller’s straight man gets paid while Hill’s amoral gangster crashes and burns. Apparently profiting from war is okay so long as you feel bad about it. Following Hollywood logic, it also presumably helps that Teller has a wife and daughter, whereas Hill is single. This is a rather cowardly and conservative resolution to an otherwise enjoyable film.