I wasn’t really sure what to expect as I sat down to watch War Dogs (Dir. Todd Philips). All I knew of it so far was by the description of a particularly verbose Wikipedia editor, as a “biographical crime war comedy-drama”. I was curious to what this entailed.
The film is based on a Rolling Stone article about two high-school friends who become international arms dealers, landing a massive Pentagon contract to equip troops in Afghanistan.
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play the two leads. David Packouz, played by Teller, is an everyman masseur from Miami on the brink of last resort – having ploughed his life savings into a failing business. Contrastingly, Efraim Diveroli, taken on by Hill, is his long-lost best friend who has just rolled back from L.A looking for someone to join his lucrative gun-running endeavour.
The films is set during the Iraq War when all military equipment orders had been placed on a public website for anyone to fulfil. With the aid of contextual timing, the motivations of these two characters – one desperation and the other quick-business – set off the action of the film. David and Efraim set out to seek the ‘little’ arms orders, overlooked by the ‘big businesses’ despite their million-dollar-making capacity and, soon – sure enough – they’re raking in the big dollar. The plot twists and turns around the obstacle that David and his girlfriend are strong objectors to the war. Soon enough, the increasingly risky and illegal lengths to which David and Efraim go to fill their (increasingly large) contracts place a strain on David’s comfortingly safe home life.
However, although alluded to, the moral conflict of the film is never really at its forefront; it’s more “Look at what crazy things these guys did!” rather than “Should they have done them at all?”. Plenty of bark – not so much bite. This moral vacuity has garnered plenty of criticism, but I found the detached way in which the events are presented refreshing. They allow us to make our own minds up about these dubious anti-heroes and their actions.
This open-ended approach to the interpretation of the ethics surrounding the films content also serves to stimulate questions on who exactly is to blame when it comes to such business. Was David and Efraim’s shady business acumen responsible for their considerable back-handed success, or should more blame be placed at the door of the US government who supply the demand for such business to be successful in such a way?
To my mind, however, those are not really the questions to be asked to grasp the point of the film. What this film represents is a fascinating insight more generally into how ambition and greed brings individuals to find themselves caught in a rising bubble that’s bound to pop eventually. It’s merit also comes from the fact it’s really funny. Although, some would say it’s not really the best topic for comedy and that the film ignores the darker side of the trade these men exploited, that doesn’t change the fact that there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to be had.
Jonah Hill deserves special mention for his love-to-hate portrayal of Efraim. His high-pitched fluttering laugh steals every scene it’s in. Minor roles were also filled and directed successfully. Bradley Cooper (as high-rolling dealer Henry Girard) was particularly memorable, if sparingly used, and showed us another facet of his impressive versatility. The film carries artistic successes on its production side as well; the score is brilliantly appropriate throughout. The mix of pop songs is exquisitely fitting (if not always particularly original) and on several occasions the lyrics provide the moral judgement the film perhaps – lacks.
My only real criticism would be that this film never really settles into a compelling rhythm – it may be absorbing in its action-packedness but not in its story. You come away feeling flat and empty rather than shocked but enthused. Largely, because it is hard to engage properly with the film when you’re never quite sure whose side you’re on. Of course, that is what real life is like…it’s just not like the movies we’re used to. Yet, I feel this film was intended to be far more dry, satirical and thought-provoking than it has been received. Leonard Cohen convinced me of this further as his voice draws the credits to a close – “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed, everybody knows that the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost”. Who the good guys are – well, that’s up to you decide.