WAR DOGS (2016)
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollak, Patrick St. Esprit, Shaun Toub, JB Blanc
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references)
Running Time: 1:54
Release Date: 8/19/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 18, 2016
War Dogs argues that war in general—and, specifically, the conflict in Iraq that began with the 2003 invasion—is about certain people, organizations, and companies making money. Anyone who doesn't realize that fact or who believes that armed conflict is about some higher ideal, the movie continues, is basically a sucker. Whatever one may think of the general validity of this argument, its cynicism here is just an excuse for the movie to take a stand on anything, and you know what they say about folks who refuse to do that.
In this case, the screenplay by Stephen Chin, director Todd Phillips, and Jason Smilovic (based on the Rolling Stone article "Arms and the Dudes" by Guy Lawson) falls for the mentality of its central characters—two men who are so enamored with the idea of personal wealth that they're willing to give up their few principles to attain it. Don't take that description as a sign that these are men of principle, though. They aren't.
Between them, they have, maybe, two principles by which they could behave. One of them believes in family and doesn't believe in the righteousness of the war. The other doesn't believe in the war, although that might be just a line. It easily could be a dishonest way of selling his buddy on the idea of selling weapons to the United States military.
Whatever they might believe is irrelevant, because, as soon as the promise of money reaches them, these two guys betray those beliefs. They are David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), and as far back as they realized it could make them a load of money, they really wanted to be arms dealers.
Being the less-amoral of the two, David serves as the movie's narrator (Phillips goes about knocking off the style of Scorsese with frames frozen mid-scene to fit in some voice-over, albeit without understanding how such a device doesn't have to stop the movie's narrative propulsion). When his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) announces that she's pregnant, David, who has had a series of failed jobs, realizes he has to figure out a way to make some real money.
Enter Efraim, David's troublemaking friend from childhood, who has returned to Miami after his uncle scammed him out of some money. At least that's the story as he tells it. Efraim doesn't have such obstacles as personal morality or business ethics or basic standards of decency with which to contend. His scheme is to take advantage of a new policy established by the second Bush administration—started after some shady ethical issues of its own—to allow any and all comers to place bids for fulfilling defense contracts for the Pentagon.
The movie offers nothing resembling criticism against any of this, even as it shows the sort of illegal and/or immoral activity that can come from people trying to secure their place as the lowest bidder—especially when even the lowest bidder could make millions on a contract. The screenplay's focus is so myopic in terms of right and wrong that any sense of good or bad is whittled down to whether or not it's beneficial to—or just convenient for—the protagonists.
That's why the nature and behavior of these two guys become a problem. The movie offers no other angle from which to look at this scenario. David and Efraim are the be-all and end-all of what we can—and, hence, what we're supposed to—take away from this story.
There's no reason to have sympathy for them. David may have the best interest of his family at heart, but there are only so many times that he can lie to Iz—even after she calls him on those lies and insists that he be honest with her—before his mendacity starts to appear more compulsory than protective. The movie eventually addresses this, although without suggesting any significant consequences (The one result of his repeated dishonesty upon his personal life is resolved by the end). There are even fewer consequences for Efraim, who laughs off obstacles and ethical qualms alike with a high-pitched chortle.
It's unfortunate that there's no sympathetic entry point into this story, because the details of putting together these deals are compelling. The duo drives through hostile territory in Iraq to keep up their end of a deal after an arms embargo in Italy forces them to reroute a shipment of pistols to Jordan. The most elaborate contract involves arming Afghan soldiers with the help of Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), whose previous dealings have landed him on a terrorist watch list.
All of this, of course, is intentionally ignoring the ultimate consequences for the pair. One could argue that it's the point of the movie—that there is punishment waiting at the end for these two. That might be giving War Dogs too much credit, though, because another fact emphasized here is that the punishment isn't too significant in the grand scheme of things. We get the sense that the movie is wagging its finger at these guys, while simultaneously winking that the finger-wagging is just a joke.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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