Movie Review: War Dogs
By Ben Gruchow
August 23, 2016
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.
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.