“The enterprise may vary but the story remains the same” – Hugh McCabe on War Dogs
Whenever I am asked how long I have been married I reply that my wife and I tied the knot the same year that George Bush Jr invaded Iraq. In fact, our wedding took place exactly two days after Baghdad fell to the ludicrously named “Coalition Of The Willing”. I distinctly remember pausing in the hotel lobby to watch footage of US army tanks cruising through the ruined streets of the city, searching for any remaining pockets of the mysteriously vanished resistance. Thankfully, the marriage worked out better than the invasion, as the decade following April 2003 seemed to consist of nothing but one catastrophe after another for the hapless occupying forces and the inept and mendacious Iraqi administration. A few days after the beginning of the occupation Robert Fisk, after witnessing the installation of numerous sectarian-inspired roadblocks around Baghdad, predicted that the city would become another Beirut. If only he had been right: the horrors that emerged out of the post-invasion chaos in Iraq were much worse than that.
It has often been said that a good decade or so passed before any notable movies dealing with Vietnam appeared and with some exceptions it’s been much the same with Iraq. Most of the celebrated Iraq war films (Hurt Locker (2008), American Sniper (2014)) are pompous exercises in fetishizing the military, most of whom are portrayed in terms of the tiresome “good guys forced to do bad things” trope. Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (2010), while still falling into this trap with its central all-American hero character played by Matt Damon, at least makes a decent effort to deal with the amoral machinations at the heart of the conflict through its depiction of shady CIA activities in Baghdad. By far the most satisfying Iraq war movie to date though is one of the earliest, David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999). While this was based on the 1990 Gulf War, it’s utterly cynical take on the motives of all participants is just as relevant to Bush Jr’s Iraq war as it was to his Daddy’s one (which is still the original and the best obviously).
Three Kings also had the virtue of being very funny, something that the new Jonah Hill vehicle, War Dogs, tries but completely fails to be. War Dogs is loosely based on the true story of two young American chancers (Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz) who set themselves up as suppliers of military hardware to the US Army. What started as relatively small change deals to ship boxes of handguns to Iraq quickly escalated into a massive contract to supply the entire Afghan army with bullets. The films tells their story from the point of view of Packouz who is played by Miles Teller of Whiplash fame. Packouz is leading a precarious and humdrum existence until flamboyant former school-friend Diveroli (played by Jonah Hill) waltzes back into his life and installs him as his second-in-command at his burgeoning arms dealing business. Diveroli is portrayed as a garrulous and overbearing oaf who will say and do anything to get what he wants (which is basically to make as much money as possible and to get laid as often as possible). Packouz is the more restrained character, motivated by the need to provide for his nascent family (his girlfriend becomes pregnant early on), but also in awe of his friend, and not above taking all the drugs and partying all night long when the mood takes him too.
War Dogs sets out its stall early on with a declaration that war is not about freedom or democracy or patriotism but is primarily an enterprise, one that is designed to generate its own economy from which participants can then subsequently profit in various ways. This is all well and good but unfortunately this is pretty much all the movie’s got. What follows is just another version of a predictable story we have seen many times before: the cocky young gun (or guns) latches onto a quasi-legal or outright criminal enterprise, becomes extraordinarily successful extraordinarily quickly, lives the high life for a time, but then gets out of his depth and crashes and burns in spectacular fashion. It’s Liotta in Goodfellas, Pacino in Scarface, Depp in Blow and DiCaprio in Wolf Of Wall Street. The enterprise may vary but the story remains the same and consequently most of what happens can be seen coming some miles off. Halfway through the movie Packouz’s girlfriend (who has no function other than to be Packouz’s girlfriend) finds out what the boys are really doing and ups and leaves him, taking the baby with her. This actually happens. She even goes to stay with her mother.
It’s not just the idea and the plot that’s clichéd though, it’s also the execution. Director Todd Phillips (responsible for The Hangover trilogy), in a misguided attempt to move on from frat-boy flicks for teenagers, crafts a hamfisted Scorsese pastiche complete with all of that director’s arsenal of tricks (voice-over, 70s music soundtrack, freeze frames – we all know the drill by now) but none of his style and verve. Jonah Hill is as annoying as he always is and Miles Teller mopes around doing not much other than a passable impersonation of a young John Cusack. Bradley Cooper shows up as a sinister international arms dealer and possible terrorist and dutifully looks cool in shades and a sharp suit. Much of this might be forgiven if the film had anything interesting to say about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars but it doesn’t. Or if it was funny but it isn’t. The only remotely exciting part comes early on when the terrified duo have to personally bring a shipment of pistols from Jordan across Iraq into Baghdad (an entirely fabricated episode). On the outskirts of Fallujah their luck runs out when they encounter a local militia who start chasing them and firing on their truck. Just as it looks like their gun-running adventures are about to come to a violent and abrupt end the cavalry arrives in the form of some US Army helicopters who magically appear over the horizon. This Uncle Sam saving-the-day moment might be intended as an ironic dig at patriotic war movies but in the context of the rest of the film it just comes across as some more dumb shit to put in there because it’s cool. We’re still waiting for a film that does any justice to the catastrophic follies of the Bush administration’s military adventures and War Dogs is certainly not it. Maybe by the time that silver wedding anniversary comes around.