By Kyle King. Propaganda that softens the brutality of war for the public palette is embedded deep within the DNA of cinema. But in Todd Phillip’s latest film War Dogs, the propaganda at play isn’t a 1940s rallying cry for nationalism, but rather an early 2000s jukebox anthem chronicling the true story of a deranged pursuit of the so-called American dream.
Miles Teller, as wunderkind international arms dealer David Packouz, opens with a Churchill-esque inquiry to the audience: “What do you know about war?” he muses. As he narrates the big buck fiscal costs in outfitting individual soldiers and entire platoons for the war in Iraq, it becomes clear he isn’t as worried about the inhumanity of warfare as much as he’s focused on the economics of it. As a salesman providing the proverbial petrol to fuel the war machine in the Middle East, it’s convenient not to take a political or moral stance about his line of work. David checks his politics at the office door. “This isn’t about being pro-war, this is about being pro-money,” David is assured by his childhood yeshiva classmate turned new business partner Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill, stealing the show). Yet it’s director Todd Phillips’ refusal to take a stand for his film overall, either politically or thematically, that puts War Dogs at odds with itself. A civil war where dramedy fights against truth.
With three Hangovers and a handful of other acclaimed Frat Pack comedies behind him, Phillips attempts to level up with War Dogs, testing his tastes with more dramatic and fragile subject matter. Though David and Efraim are groomed caricatures of Phillips’ misbehaving male meatballs — both in their Twenties, constantly high off their asses, and way the hell out of their league — the backdrop has much higher stakes than Phillips has handled before. Divided between the fictionalized comedy of his protagonists and the true story exposé of their corrupt military practices, the film struggles to shoot straight. It wants big-boom storytelling, when it can scarcely handle scandalous hearsay.
While Hill has the meatier role of the two (figuratively and literally; he put on quite a bit of weight for the role), Teller is left to play the dull audience surrogate. With a wife at home and a kid on the way, David’s eagerness to make big money pays off as their company AYE Inc. lands a multi-million dollar deal shipping handguns out of Italy. The script (penned by Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic, and Phillips, based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson) is able to navigate the hi-jinks that come with two oafs armed with little know-how in foreign policy, but ultimately the film spends too much time with David, a vastly less intriguing character. Like war itself, Efraim gains traction as a morally gray figure — he balances between being a good person and a good businessman in an evil industry — but instead of tapping into that correlation, the movie holds hands with the naive and altruistic David. War Dogs’ polarity causes it to suffer.
Between the duo’s mismanagement of business and a supremely solemn Bradley Cooper as arms dealer big wig Henry Girard, the film never over-glorifies war or even attempts to evangelize the arms industry (any more than necessary anyway). But Ana De Armas suffers a thankless role as David’s wife Iz, who registers as barely conscious when the film bothers to include her in David’s meager subplot. As an uninteresting leading man with little to do, Miles Teller has proven to do better with bigger emotional characters in films like The Spectacular Now and Whiplash. Here, Miles Teller is totally wasted.
War Dogs delivers half a buddy comedy and one-third a war crime drama. As a not-so subtle metaphor for the American Dream, it does indeed soften the brutality of warfare with its buffoonery, but only at the expense of mediocre cinema. There’s a better movie in there somewhere. Walking away from this one, it’s apparent that Phillips may have lost the battle but perhaps not yet the war.
Directed by Todd Phillips.
Produced by Mark Gordon, Todd Phillips and Bradley Cooper.
Screenplay by Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips and Jason Smilovic.
Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, and Barry Livingston.
Rated R because assholes like to swear.
5.5 out of 10