Looking for a scandalous storyline about arms sale and manufacture during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan engagements in the early- to mid-2000s is sort of like hoping you’ll find a drink of water by diving into a swimming pool. To call those years rife with opportunity to criticize the administration’s actions from an ethical or humanitarian viewpoint is to shortchange the concept of supply. So when it comes to filming a narrative out of the ambiguous moral and ethical centers of those individuals who operate in terrible circumstances with a profit motive, we can afford to take it for granted that there’s a rich vein of real-life material to work with.
Movie Review: War Dogs
By Ben Gruchow
August 23, 2016
That’s kind of why it’s either weirdly admirable or just weird that the story laid out here by Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic, and Todd Phillips, and directed by Phillips, manages to end up absorbing and even a little cathartic while somehow being less sleazy and scandalous than the real-life story it’s based on. We are introduced to David Packouz (Miles Teller), early twenties. He works as a massage therapist to make ends meet, sharing a little apartment with his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas). At a funeral, he’s reacquainted with his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who despite a toxic reputation seems to have his life together in a way that eludes David.
Efraim, as played by Hill, is a loathsome individual, and an emotionally volatile one. His methods of ingratiation to strangers would send psychologists for their copies of the DSM; his reaction to being conned out of three hundred dollars on a street corner would have them diving for cover. He’s also highly intelligent and opportunistic, and it is he who introduces David into the world of small-time arms dealing. The U.S. government contracts out to firms of various sizes for its military needs; during a period of active involvement in both Afghanistan and Iraq, these potential contracts are manifold. The big contracts are the ones with firms that we’ve all heard about: Halliburton, Blackwater, etc. The smaller contracts are handled by companies we don’t. Efraim’s is called AEY, and David helps him build it from a minuscule boiler-room operation into the type of small company where there’s a lot of floor-to-ceiling glass walls, and every window provides a great view.
The crux of AEY’s contracts seem to revolve around arms supply, and both of them are naturals at identifying small details of firearms and firearm components. Their first big contract - big for them, at least - involves the sale of Berettas to a U.S. green zone in Baghdad, direct from Italy. Something goes wrong with the order, and they end up in a truck driving from one hostile country to another in a beat-up old truck. The job puts them on the map, and as they move up, Efraim’s vindictive and manipulative sides - there are multiple for each trait - begin to assert themselves in ways that give David pause.
It’s pretty easy to see right away where Todd Phillips is going with this. War Dogs establishes and maintains an aura of pitch-black, mordant cynicism from the opening frame until the end credits roll. It’s the same angle that Adam McKay went for last year in The Big Short, and that Andrew Niccol went for somewhat closer to home in 2005’s Lord of War. The difference: Todd Phillips is no Adam McKay, and he’s definitely no Andrew Niccol. His grasp of shading ethically dubious individuals in an adult way - which this material deserves as a condition of its existence - is rudimentary, and the establishing scenes of War Dogs work awfully hard to make us hate it. Since “ethically dubious” is where almost everyone we meet starts, and since Phillips has only the most basic ability to trace around the outlines of those shapes, the impression is of a bunch of histrionically unpleasant people who have existences only as deep as their line readings. This is not intrinsically a bad thing at all, and it even begins to form part of the point in relation to one of the main characters toward the end, but it’s immediately exhausting and repetitive in a detrimental way. There’s getting it, and then there’s getting it.
Luckily, there is a point at which the gears of a larger story begin to turn, in a literal and metaphorical sense. War Dogs was heavily fictionalized; normally this is a result of the material being juiced up for Hollywood because the real story is too pedestrian-seeming and there’s not enough bad guys, and it’s a sign of the adaptation’s deficiency. Here, it’s more like the characters of Efraim and David have been severely toned down and pulled back from the offenses their real-world counterparts committed before AEY put them on the map, particularly Efraim. And this is probably a good thing; to portray the reality of these people in the tone chosen by the guy who made the Hangover movies would probably cause cerebral hemorrhages in theaters across the country, starting with mine.
There comes a point in the back half of War Dogs where we realize that the story is going to follow a well-known path to the end: there will be the false crisis, the false dawn, the real crisis, the hero’s examination of self, absolution, and the real dawn. With movies like this, which aspire to be About Stuff in the sense that they address complicated national and international crises through the lens of a two-hour studio film, there is an additional step: the cynical continuation. This is the part where we’re told, usually in voiceover or by on-screen text, that whatever malfeasance the story uncovers is still going on in some form. This prevents us from having much investment in any of the characters; the one person that seems to be mostly blameless is Iz, and she’s never granted anything like a third dimension. David has something like a redemption, but it’s really more like the aftermath of a desperate bargain.
Teller doesn’t help; I don’t like to question the merits of an actor’s talent unless it’s really something apocalyptic that they do with otherwise-functional material, and neither the acting or writing behind the David character fits that bill. We still don’t really get a sense of investment from Teller until the final scenes, and I wonder what a more expressive actor - one with a more finely-honed sense of what it is to convey desperation and moral ambiguity in an underplayed way- would have been able to do with this. No such wonder exists for me as far as Efraim; this is a monstrous individual even sanitized from his real-world counterpart, and Hill plays him as outsized as it possibly could be. I could tell you that an actor with less physical presence than Hill could perhaps get at the nuances of Efraim’s character psychology, and I could also tell you that his presence onscreen makes us feel like washing and disinfecting our hands.
This marks the second time in the last year, after the aforementioned Big Short, that a director who’s versed mostly in ineffectual comedy takes a dive into more serious subject matter via the nihilistic end of the pool. This is not the better of the two, but it’s still an intriguingly jumbled mix of instinct with ambitious tonal experimentation. I hope to see more of it. Meanwhile, we have this story in the here and now, and my guess is that if your goal in mind is to see a 120-minute representation of some of the worst byproducts and instincts of our military engagements over the last decade or so, and a representation that elbows us insistently with its knowledge that we can’t do anything to change it…well, you know where the tickets are sold.