Review - War Dogs
War Dogs, the new release from Warner Bros., follows the true life story of twentysomething David Packouz (played by Miles Teller), a Floridian college dropout with a lousy job, small apartment and inexplicably attractive girlfriend, who is desperate to make something more of himself. As luck would have it his old friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a wannabe gangster who struts around in Hawaiian shirts and gold chains and keeps a submachine gun in the boot of his Porsche, breezes back into his life with a tantalising offer.
Efraim has hit on the most American of American Dreams: getting rich selling guns. In particular, he has discovered a bizarre part of the American government’s arms procurement system which allows free-lancers, including people barely out of high school with no experience or qualifications, to bid for US army contracts.
It’s 2005, the Iraq War is in full flow, and guns are gold. While the billion dollar contracts are out of their league, they are able to make a tidy sum supplying the small orders that the huge conglomerates can’t be bothered with, the crumbs that fall off the big pie, as Efraim describes it. David gives up his attempt to get rich selling Egyptian cotton bedsheets to retirement homes and is soon driving a van of guns through the Iraqi desert. Their business grows rapidly, moving out of Efraim’s one room apartment and into a sleek office with a swanky logo and browbeaten employees. One day a bit of good fortune leads them to land a $300 million dollar contract. However, fulfilling it proves to be more difficult than they had hoped, and things soon begin to go wrong.
As a pure piece of entertainment, War Dogs is a generally engaging film. It is well made with good performances, and has a decent mix of drama, humour and action that will keep your attention until the credits roll. In many respects the film follows a well-trodden path, the rags-to- riches-by- any-means story. This familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, the story of the underdog (pun partially intended) who resorts to questionable activities to enrich and empower themselves has formulated some of the best movies ever made, from Goodfellas to the Wolf of Wall Street. Indeed, War Dogs owes a significant debt to these Scorsese masterpieces of violence, greed and comeuppance, and like them is a (mostly) true story.
This is another addition to the pantheon of cinema that chronicles the sick underbelly of the American Dream. Packouz and Diveroli don’t just do this for a living, they savour it. They love the power and the money. They make constant references to the archetypal gangster film Scarface, and it clearly influences their ridiculous posturing. David has a bazooka mounted to his office wall, and Efraim gives him a solid gold grenade as a gift. They pose for photos with guns while giving middle finger salutes to the camera. Efraim, after getting ripped off by some drug dealers, unleashes a burst of gunfire in a residential area while laughing like a maniac (it’s half surprising he doesn’t scream “say hello to my little friend!” in a Cuban accent). These people represent everything that was rotten about the Bush/Cheney America and to a large extent still is today. They are greedy and intellectually vapid hustlers who profiteer off the most unpopular war since Vietnam. All ethical considerations are quickly brushed aside – David makes a half-hearted attempt to suggest he is against the war, and Efraim declares his hatred of George W. Bush, but they immediately disregard the moral quandaries with the logic that the war is going on anyway, so they might as well make some money off it – as Efraim says, “this isn’t about being pro-war. This is about being pro-money.” David hides the nature of his business from his girlfriend who apparently is vehemently against the war, but when she finds out what he is up to she briefly gets annoyed before quickly coming around to his way of thinking, and after that the issue is never raised again.
That is where this movie falls down while Goodfellas and the Wolf of Wall Street soar, because it refuses to fully own its protagonists’ deeply unattractive characteristics. Rather than start off with a relatable character who we watch mutate into something hideous, an insightful portrayal of the excess of the American Dream gone bad, this film starts with already unlikeable characters and tries to excuse the increasingly problematic things they do. Nobody ever reflects on the moral ambiguity of their actions for more than five seconds, and the film doesn’t want us to either.
All the drama and conflict comes from the rise and fall of the business and arguments over money. This isn’t to say that there should have been some sudden epiphany where David Packouz decides the numbers of civilian deaths in Iraq is weighing too heavily on him; in fact, their immaturity and immorality is what makes the story interesting. The protagonists in Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street are unremittingly immoral, and it’s not an issue, because the film highlights their true nature, and sort of winks to the audience as if to say “don’t worry, I see it too”.
What is grating about War Dogs is that we are apparently expected to sympathise with them, especially narrator David, who we are supposed to excuse because he does it for the right reasons and seems to be a nice enough guy. The problem is, he’s not a nice guy. He’s a stoner bro of death. He’s a pothead waster who somehow becomes a major player in the Middle Eastern wars while having literally no understanding of international affairs. He is like a chimp flying a plane – funny as a joke but terrifying in reality. This is not somebody to root for. Director Todd Philips, best known as the creator of the Hangover trilogy, seems to completely miss this, and instead tells the story with the kind of depth you’d expect from a man who finds date rape drugs hilarious.
In fairness, the film is not a laugh riot, taking its dark humour from casual quips and Efraim’s flaring temperament rather than forcing gags in, and does represent the story from their side in a semi-serious way. The issue is it fails to delve any deeper into the wider malaise that allowed two stoners from Miami Beach to get rich by bypassing arms embargos and acting as intermediaries between the Pentagon and people on America’s own terrorist watch list, all of which was sanctioned by the Bush administration. What is particularly interesting about this story, and the way in which it differs from Goodfellas and the Wolf of Wall Street, is that everything they did (until the very end) was entirely legal. They were completely disregarding the spirit in which certain laws were created, but not the actual facts of them, and were doing so at the behest of the American government. As Efraim says in a measured way when David asks him if bypassing an arms embargo on Iraq is legal, “it’s not illegal”. Translation: we really shouldn’t be doing this, but nobody can actually put us in jail for it.
This isn’t a portrait of the mafia or fraudster bankers; the criminals in this film are in the White House. David and Efraim are just government lackeys, at the bottom of the military-industrial complex’s food chain, doing the dirty work the respectable people can’t be involved with directly. But that’s not the story this film is interested in telling. Instead we follow the odyssey of these two goofballs as they make a lot of money and then lose it all through their own ineptitude. They are just a small part of a fascinating story, but instead they become the whole story, and an opportunity is missed.
War Dogs is not meant to be insightful political commentary. It is a straight-forward comic drama with an interesting storyline, and in that regard it is a success, albeit not an unqualified one – many characters feel underdeveloped, especially David’s girlfriend who could have been substituted with a cardboard cut-out of a generic model without affecting the flow of the film. In some ways War Dogs transcends itself and becomes an embodiment of the soullessness of its characters, completely apolitical and amoral, just like capitalism itself. In that way it may actually tell us more about modern America than it intended. It has deliberately been stripped of any complex message to create a sellable commodity.
This film is, after all, meant to be profitable. The main problem is simply that this story warranted a different narrative. There is a different film somewhere in here, a more insightful tale to be told and lesson to be learned. This could have been an interesting insight into the problems that arise when war and corporate interests intersect. Instead, this is dumbed down entertainment. That might be fine for the Hangover, but this story deserves better.