‘War Dogs’: A buddy dramedy that doesn’t quite hit the mark

The biggest problem in “War Dogs” is director Todd Phillips’ insistence on making characters David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli the focus of a troubling tale.

Clip from trailer for Warner Bros' "War Dogs." (Screen capture via YouTube video)

WASHINGTON, September 14, 2016 – In the comedy-drama movie “War Dogs,” central characters David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) are not good people, whether you’re dealing with their film personas or the underlying characters’ real life counterparts. And that’s not too much of a stretch. Both loosely fictionalized characters are actually based on the arms dealers and bottom feeders active in that occupation during the Iraq War earlier this century.

The problem is that “War Dogs” hinges entirely on the audience viewing them as a likeable pair of friends at minimum, with at least one of them, Packouz, being a more or less a stand-up guy. But it doesn’t really work.

Writer/director Todd Phillips has made an entire film career out of the sort of characters he’s crafted for “War Dogs.” He seems to specialize in stories about “men behaving badly,” though his badly behaving men who, even as they get older, seem more like young dudes trapped in a state arrested adolescence. In other words, they’re typically adults who haven’t matured much past the age of 17 or 18. This familiar situation is on full display in his earlier films like “Old School” (2003) and the “Hangover” trilogy (2009-2013).

Phillips’ favorite characters are either reaching or already in the midst of a midlife crisis, men confronting the crossroads between youthful expectations and the grim reality of adulthood, but about ten years later than they should have. As a result, they’re handling things it poorly.

In the case of “War Dogs,” however, that’s really the wrong standard to apply to the protagonists in this film even if it initially seems fit the subject matter. This film clearly emerges as a dark comedy that pokes fun at war profiteering while also plumbing its sordid depths, similar to the way rapacious capitalism is treated in one of this decade’s great though somewhat underrated films, “The Big Short” (2015). That blueprint seems the one Phillips is following with “War Dogs.” But in the current film, it never quite works.

The biggest problem in “War Dogs” is the director’s insistence on making Packouz and Diveroli the focal points. Prior to getting Packouz involved, the real-life counterpart of Diveroli started his company, AEY, while he was still a teenager, transforming it from a shell company owned by his father.

Both real-life characters made a significant amount of money supplying the U.S. military with weapons via AEY, eventually winning increasingly ambitious contracts that far exceeded what they could legally obtain or produce. For the most part, the Pentagon looked the other way until they the situation became too problematic to continue. After the game was up, the real Packouz and Diveroli were tried and convicted on conspiracy charges and served time for their misdeeds.

“War Dogs” covers most of this turf to varying degrees, but there odd little details that are made primarily for narrative reasons. In real life, these two characters are about 4 years apart in age and the notion of their actual friendship is conjectural at best. For the sake of the film’s narrative, “War Dogs” alters reality by making the pair longtime friends dating from junior high, minimizing their age difference at least by implication.

The idea, of course, is to provide filmgoers with the kind of narrative thread they can more easily recognize and identify with by transforming the film into that old Hollywood stand by, the buddy comedy, albeit one that also charts the disintegration of a close friendship. The whole effort is geared toward making these characters likeable, at least in a certain light, if only to make the downfall of their friendship that much more gripping for an audience that’s invested in them both. But it’s a bit of a stretch at times.

The outrageous reality that Diveroli and Packouz were committing actual crimes while the Pentagon was turning a blind eye toward the situation is simply brushed aside with a sense of apathy. The general tone of “War Dogs” seems to support the notion that both anti-heroes were okay with skirting the law to increase profits because it was something anyone else would do to get what they wanted.

This is a general theme running through Phillips’ films. It’s appearance in this film, however, is frustrating, given how often opposition to the War in Iraq – something of an ahistorical vibe – is paid lip service by reference. Yet despite the not-so-subtle pontificating, there’s no real attempt in “War Dogs” to show the real damage Packouz and Diveroli sowed through their amoral profiteering. While movie constantly promotes the idea that its intentions are relatively high minded, the underlying subject matter tells another story.

This problem is at least one result of the film’s biggest flaw: having Miles Teller’s David Packouz narrate the entire film.

Narration in film can prove contentious. Most films use the “omniscient” approach, implying no narrator at all, even though we’re really seeing the events in the film through the eyes and attitudes of the film’s writer(s) and director. Having a film’s major character do the narration, however, can cause problems, particularly when the narrator is or is perceived to be unreliable. And that’s a key problem with “War Dogs” from the very start.

The fact that the entire movie is told from the perspective of David Packouz overwhelms the story, due to his obvious unreliability as a narrator. The key flaw here at least in part is that Packouz’s narration goes out its way to make ensure the audience doesn’t view him as a criminal or even a bad guy.

Granted, the filmmakers’ intention is to get the viewer firmly on Packouz’s side. In a non-narrated film, story, meaning and resolution can be left up to the viewer’s own interpretation, resulting in a different kind of experience. But force-feeding Packouz’s unreliable narrative paints a much different picture. This makes the film’s outcome harder to swallow when Packouz faces nothing of much consequence.

This dichotomy is precisely why “War Dogs” ultimately. While Phillips has become a much better technical director over the years–evolving his stylistic quick cuts to control the viewer’s eye and push the visuals along smoothly—he takes the same approach with the narrative as well, causing the narrative to lose its proper focus and the story to falter.

In his attempt to sympathize with the gun runners’ perspective, Phillips inadvertently sinks this film by going too far into the minds of two fairly unlikable characters, never pulling the audience to the other side where perspective and truth reside.

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