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