Friday, April 14, 2017
I just watched War Dogs and give it 6.9 out of 10, which is to say, not quite 7.
I saw it on TV and there were a few excerpts from reviews accompanying the listing of it on a movie channel I get. They panned it for its jazzed up effects and for not taking a stronger moral stand against this particular dark alley of "enterprise war." The guy who directed it, Todd Phillips, directed the Hangover movies, which I saw and didn't much like. So I had low expectations.
But I was pleasantly surprised. I was never bored and while I didn't think it was at all funny or profound, I found the story well told and fast paced. I've known guys like the Jonah Hill character all my life, some having been friends of mine at times, others having been clients. Jonah Hill is fantastic in his portrayal of that kind of guy, con man par excellence, with very little discernible core self, in many respects virtually sociopathic, ultimately undone by his own weaknesses and lack of self control. I kept forgetting it was Jonah Hill and became immersed in his character.
Miles Teller is less effective and is impaled on a contradiction in his character as both a nice, simple guy, a naïf and a nebbish, but also a quick study, able, for example, to construct out of nothing three years of back dated phony accounting records right down to fake purchase orders sufficient to pass two U.S. army procurement audits. One of those two sides of him, as the movie has it, has to go because they don't fit together. Also the scenes with him and his girl friend are boring. Teller himself and those scenes drain away some of the energy that Hill blasts through the movie.
What helps stiffen the movie's spine is that it's based on a true story. While I can't tell how much War Dogs distorts, departs from and embellishes the true story, it's quite amazing how two twenty something Jewish kids from Miami who never finished college pull off as much as they do.
Mind you, against all that pulling off, it's compelling to see how Hill--for as sharp as he is in nailing down the ins and outs of arms dealing and the various angles he works it from, in conning others and in teaching Teller all that--is so vindictive-dumb and greedy-dumb in how finally he fucks every thing up.
That he brings everything crashing down out the weaknesses in himself, out of what he can't control in himself, is War Dogs's version of a kind of anti tragic flaw, the flaw that brings a low person down even lower to ruin from flimsy corrupt heights. And that flaw builds up nicely, getting more and more exposed, as the movie goes along till it finally explodes in all the principals' undoing.
In The Wolf Of Wall Street and in Goodfellas, which itself is compellingly watchable, I have a problem with Scorsese's amorality in jazzing up what is awful human behavior ranging from scamming gullible people to outright gangster thuggery and murder. There's a moral and intellectual gap between how morally deplorable all that behavior is and how it's either glamorized, made entertaining or made light of as for example in the litany of corpses at the hand of Robert De Niro showing up near the end of Goodfellas in funny looking poses of death.
But, having noted all that, it doesn't bother me at all, as it does many reviewers, that Phillips doesn't take a harsh view of what Hill and Teller do either in itself or as part of the dark, dark history of the Iraqi war. That they defraud the Pentagon, and ultimately U.S. tax payers, doesn't bother me, even as it's criminal. Maybe it should. But, for me, Phillips basically tells an amazing story quite effectively and I found myself hoping for these rip off guys to get away with it.
In this story, the charm of rogues defying the powers that be, the essential appeal of rogues, wins me over till things finally fall apart.