June 14, 2017

Film & Television

Netflix goes to war

By Harry Windsor
Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon in Netflix’s War Machine
The streaming giant is paying big money for big names as it expands into film, but will that be enough?

If the past couple of weeks have proved anything, it’s that Netflix’s ability to attract publicity is second to none – just not for their movies. This year’s Cannes Film Festival saw the streaming platform bring two original features, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, to the Croisette, but their presence only highlighted the anxieties Netflix has exacerbated among studios and particularly among exhibitors around the world.

Under pressure from French cinema owners, the festival welcomed the Netflix Originals with the news they’d be the last of their kind. From next year, all competition titles will have to commit to a theatrical release in France. Films are released there on streaming platforms three long years after they’ve played in cinemas – a lag anathema to Netflix’s entire business model. Even the Cannes jurors got involved, with Pedro Almodóvar saying he wouldn’t give his vote to a film that won’t be seen in cinemas, and Will Smith, ever the diplomat, springing to Netflix’s defence.

It says something about where we are that the erstwhile Fresh Prince seemed far the more realistic of the two. Smith’s kids “go to the movies twice a week,” he said, “and they watch Netflix.” The actor claimed that Netflix “has had absolutely no effect on what they go to the movie theatre to watch. [They] go to the cinema to be humbled by certain images and stay home for others.”

Then again, Smith would say that – his next film, Bright, was fully financed by Netflix to the tune of $90 million and will be released on the platform in December. Like the other films on Netflix’s slate, it looks nothing like what the studios are putting out in 2017. Directed by David Ayer, whose most recent films include Suicide Squad and End of Watch, Bright sounds like a mash-up of the two, with Smith playing an LA cop who teams up with an Orc partner played by Joel Edgerton.

Others in Netflix’s first crop of original features also look like they must have been awkward pitches, and many of them have the whiff of the passion project. Duncan Jones is finally getting to make Mute, the sci-fi feature he’s been talking about since his first film, Moon, was released in 2009. Scottish helmer David Mackenzie, fresh off the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, is writing and directing a movie about Robert the Bruce, starring Chris Pine.

There’s the sense that Netflix has the money to throw about on films that boast big stars and look “premium” but might not have passed the smell test at a studio, even in an era less obsessed with IP. Earlier this year Netflix snapped up Martin Scorsese’s long-in-gestation gangster movie The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. The project was originally set up with Paramount, the studio that released Scorsese’s most recent film, Silence, last year. Silence grossed $7 million in the United States from a $46 million budget. Netflix paid upwards of $100 million for The Irishman – twice what the competition was offering.

Netflix’s expansion beyond Adam Sandler comedies a couple of years ago came at a particularly good time for the producers of War Machine, the new film from Australian writer and director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, The Rover). Starring Brad Pitt, it was originally set up with New Regency and RatPac Entertainment, the film-financing shingle James Packer departed in April. New Regency reportedly wanted to lower the budget, so Netflix swooped in with a whopping $60 million outlay – an amount that, in the innocent days before Bright and The Irishman, had industry tongues wagging.

War Machine is “inspired by” The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, by Michael Hastings, who wrote the Rolling Stone profile that ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal. The film is a fictionalisation of The Operators story, only it isn’t really. Stan McChrystal has become the buffoonish Glen McMahon, with the lolling tongue, clawed hands and jerky movements that Pitt trots out whenever he’s going for laughs, but the particulars of McChrystal’s habits – and his downfall – are the same.

Like McChrystal, McMahon runs seven miles a morning, eats one meal a day, sleeps four hours a night and talks about “winning”. The alterations are so minor you wonder why Michôd bothered. McChrystal has a graduate degree from Harvard (McMahon’s is from Yale), and the COIN counterinsurgency doctrine he advocated has been rebranded SNORPP, because it sounds funny. “I had no interest in doing a hatchet job on Stan McChrystal,” Michôd recently told the Ringer, a line that seems to me preternaturally naïve.

War Machine wants to be a cautionary tale about hubris but winds up neither fish nor fowl, a satire with few laughs and banal insights (counterinsurgency doesn’t work, the American military is full of cowboys) undone by a fatally misjudged bit of mugging from Pitt, working in a register far broader than the performances around him. The best of them is from Meg Tilly (The Big Chill) as McMahon’s wife, Jeannie, who manages to be very moving even when everything around her feels exaggerated beyond the possibility of pathos.

Tilda Swinton pops up in a single scene as a German politician interrogating McMahon at a seminar in Berlin, determined to “make sure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and [do not] carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else”. Whisked off to the Victims of War and Tyranny memorial on Unter den Linden as plaintive piano chords from co-composer Nick Cave cut in, McMahon is visibly stilled by her words.

Cue the film’s narrator, a Hastings surrogate played by The Rover’s Scoot McNairy. Men go grey, he tells us, when they realise “the great moments of their lives might not turn out to be quite as great as they’d always hoped. What separates the believers like Glen from everybody else is their ability to block this real world out.” But Pitt’s performance and the score tell us plainly that the General hasn’t blocked it out at all.

For Netflix, the incoherence of War Machine doesn’t matter. Without the need to sell tickets, the company can back projects that are loud and starry and might bolster subscriber numbers, even projects that never would have made it to the gate under the old studio model. For filmmakers, the lure is obvious. Netflix is by all accounts a hands-off financier whose only stipulation is that films be shot in 4K resolution – so digital rather than film – and who wouldn’t sign up for that kind of freedom?

But the nature of the platform, as IndieWire’s David Ehrlich recently argued, also makes it easy for films – even ones starring Brad Pitt – to get lost in the scrum. And while filmmakers simply want to make good movies, Netflix’s objectives are subtly but notably different, and their hands-off approach is beginning to seem more like a lack of quality control. Okja premiered in Cannes to mixed reviews, with some labelling it “glorious” and others “crudely sketched”. My own take is that Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton make Pitt look like a model of restraint.

The streaming giant has committed a remarkable $6 billion to original content in 2017, and recently hired former Universal executive Scott Stuber to oversee its film division. Amazon picked up last year’s Manchester by the Sea at Sundance and took it all the way to the Oscars, and Stuber’s brief is no doubt to get behind projects that might drum up similar fanfare. Until then, Netflix will be looking to Will Smith to do what he does best – and save the day.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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