FILM REVIEW – WAR DOGS. With Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak. Written by Stephen Chin and Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic. Directed by Todd Phillips. Rated R for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references. 114 minutes.
If you look at films about World War II–particularly those made during the war–there’s a definite point of view. There’s no amibiguity as to who the good guys (us) and the bad guys (Germany, Japan) are whether the film is a drama or comedy, or it ends in victory or defeat. For filmgoers of that era, there was was no question as to why we were fighting.
In the decades since, those who led us into war–particularly in Vietnam or Iraq–could not convince Americans as to our goals. Stop the spread of Communism? Go after hidden caches of weapons? Spread democracy? The longer those wars went on, the less convincing the arguments were.
As a result, while the movies about these wars may ask us to “support the troops,” they are not about supporting the war effort itself. Instead, they are dark, often cynical movies, where lives are wasted and even the supposed good guys are flawed or, as in WAR DOGS corrupt. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, which is why for most of its running time, the film is sugar-coated as a comedy.
Based on a true story about two young Florida men who became arms merchants, it features Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli, who enjoys easy money, drugs, and taking risks. He reconnects with an old school friend, David Packouz (Miles Teller) in 2005. He shows him how the government is letting people like him go after “the crumbs” of arms sales in Iraq and Afghanistan by putting their needs out to bid. David and his wife Iz (Ana de Armas) are expecting their first child, so the chance to make a lot more money than he was making as a masseuse is too good to pass up.
A goodly portion of the film is played for laughs. Efraim takes an order for Italian handguns for Iraq and then learns that Italy has passed a law forbidding exports to the country. When they ship the guns to Jordan–a neutral country–there’s still the problem of getting them to Iraq. In spite of the (brief) appearance of a dead body, the sequence plays like an action comedy. Even their interaction with big time arms dealer Henry Girard (a charmingly sinister Bradley Cooper) starts as a joke, as when he reveals he want to use them as middlemen because, inconveniently, he’s on a terrorist watch list.
A brief prologue suggests the inevitable change of tone that’s coming, but even when things go bad for David, the film maintains his essential goodness, even as Efraim is revealed to be a sleaze. Hill plays Efraim as larger than life, betraying everyone around him including his “best friend” David and the Jewish businessman (Kevin Pollak) who is bankrolling him because he has been led to believe it’s in support of Israel. David is seen as just another victim. Indeed, the real David Packouz even gets a cameo in the film (as an entertainer at an old age home). See? War can be fun.
By treating this is as a caper movie, “War Dogs” provides the requisite action and laughs. Yet it glosses over both the actual impact of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the moral implication of the actions of Ephraim and David, other than engaging in fraud in the deal that finally brings them down. Indeed the final scene of the movie leaves us wondering if we’re to be happy for David and his family, or chilled at what was left in the wake of his business dealings. American troops may be risking their lives in both countries going well into a second decade, but movies like this make it clear we still don’t know how to think about it, if we think about it at all.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.