Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Aug 27, 2016 7:47 am 
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Bad dudes

Somehow War Dogs, about a couple of twenty-somethings who have a short run as international arms dealers, ought to be both more thought-provoking and more fun. It's mildly exciting, even jaw-dropping in some aspects since it's "true," but it's disappointing, and leaves one feeling empty. The reasons are several. There's really not enough about the late Bush-era open-to-the-little-guy system of government arms deals that's behind the rise and fall of its two young druggie arms dealer dudes, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller). It also turns out to be rather difficult to be interested in the dudes themselves as people.

This is due to almost everything, the writing, directing, and casting (the score, sound design, and fake location shoots are fine.) The writer Stephen Chin gets the information in but doesn't give it quite the emphasis and the punch needed. Director Todd Phillips, who's, with Judd Apatow, the decade's must successful dude-comedy producer-director, and whose big score is the "Hangover" franchise, handles the violence, vulgarity, and mayhem here, but doesn't get the complexities of arms dealings or its morality across so well. As for the casting, Hill, even more overweight and loud than usual, is just too repellent here, a foulmouthed, vulgar, heedless, violent boor. That is the personality of Ephraim Diveroli as he depicts him. Teller, who after a touching debut starring role as a teen drunk in The Spectacular Now, has settled into blockbusters lately, this time is too bland, just a durable but recessive Good Old Boy who has little to do besides look guilty or astonished. Such pictures don't particularly fit the real Diveroli and Packouz as described in the original Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson, and they lack three-dimensionality.

This pair of junior arms impresarios are obviously no Silicon Valley wunderkinder. They're smart, maybe, but lack good sense and planning skills. They wind up not billionaires, but arrested, though they're both out again now (Packouz never went in), and posing for flattering photos on Wikipedia. The pair were both good Orthodox Jewish boys; well, not good, exactly. They're depicted here as having known each other at school, but Diveroili was expelled before high school and started dealing arms in his mid-teens. When he turns up in Miami for a Jewish family event he and Packouz pal around, and Diveroli is so busy with his arms dealing that he gets Packouz to partner with him and his company AEY. Diveroli was the prime mover, however, having latched onto arms dealing as a career early; it was in the family. Parkouz is married and has a baby, working, humiliatingly, it's strongly hinted, as an independent masseur, while attempting, unsuccessfully, we're told, to sell high quality bed sheets wholesale to retirement homes.

There are various scenes of private life, though the pair's heavy drug use seems underrepresented, apart a bong or two and some lines of coke, given how prominent it seems to have been in their actual story. David's wife Iz (Ana de Armas) is Hispanic, though this aspect is never referred to. He has to lie to her, and a good comic moment is when he's in the middle of what turns out to be the "Triangle of Death" between Jordan and Iraq in the cab of a truck loaded with Italian Beretta pistols with two truckloads of armed men approaching at full speed, and he pretends to his wife he's finishing breakfast in an Amman hotel. This exploit has been forced upon them because the Berettas can't be sent directly to Iraq by the Italians - a typical situation requiring a workaround; every deal involves skirting the law. As the original Rolling Stone story sums it up, "the whole point is to disguise origins and end-users."

This Berettas-to-Baghdad exploit comes off as some fun craziness. Ephraim turns to David and says, "We're gun runners! So let's run some guns!" When it's done, the pair realize they've driven through Fallujah and could have died; the officer ordering the pistols who had nearly fired them now congratulates them. The film has two big sequences, the dicey little Jordan-to-Baghdad truck run, and the big drawn out and hugely profitable arms deal to go to the Afghan National Army that takes them to Albania. They get stiffed by the Albanians. The 5 million rounds of 40-year-old surplus AK-47 ammunition they get turns out to be duds, and from China, violating a US embargo against dealing in Chinese arms, and their attempt to hide its forbidden origins by repacking the ammo doesn't succeed, and they're busted, literally.

This bigger deal comes through a scary-chic international gangster arms dealer, played somewhat comically by co-producer (and Phillips' Hangover cohort) Bradley Cooper, whom they meet up with at a Las Vegas arms dealer fair. A point that might have been more brought out is that it's US soldiers with very little knowledge, like the dudes' contact for the Berettas in Baghdad, who're conducting deals for the Pentagon. It was also commonplace for companies that had been barred to reappear shortly thereafter to manage more arms deals with the government under a new name, and though it's not mentioned, Diveroli did that.

The idea that ought to have emerged here is something that Ephraim does explain to David, who has to be told everything since he's the latecomer. (We're also treated to a running commentary by David, which adds up to a little too much exposition and too little detachment.) This is that the Bush administration, which almost totally privatized its warfare, realized it was looking bad for all its sweetheart deals with big "death star" corporations like Halliburton and Blackwater in Iraq, so it set up something that enabled smaller middlemen the opportunity to handle gray market deals, essentially allowing a screen between the government and illegal arms and making this what Napoleon called a "carrière ouverte aux talents." As Ephraim explains to David, and us, they find their deals simply by studying a government online site called "fbo-dot-gov" or "FedBizOps," which lists thousands of government purchase deals open to public bidding. And little outfits like Deveroli's AEY could broker shady deals as a proxy for the Pentagon. The arrangement winds up meaning Pentagon aka DOD arms dealing was shadier and more immoral than ever.

Obviously a movie that's meant to be funny and exciting can't be a morality play, but War Dogs might have succeeded better if it had heightened our sense of the wrongness as well as the danger, the way the US government is providing profit to evil and devious men and supplying its alleged allies with low quality and unsafe weaponry.* One way or another, you have to show this shitty work for what it is. Instead the story becomes just a race against danger, deadlines, and detection. Despite its interesting real basis, War Dogs is just a failed caper flick. It doesn't stand comparison with Lord of War, which Andrew Niccol (writer for two brilliant films, Gattaca and The Truman Show, and director as well for Gattaca) made on this topic. Niccol has ideas. In Lord of War, Nicolas Cage's arms dealer is forced to confront head-on the immorality of what he has been so successful so long at doing. War Dogs' heedless protagonists aren't capable of that, and this movie lacks the cinematic flair or human interest to compensate for its moral vacuum.

War Dogs, 114 mins., premiered in NYC 3 August 2016 and opened wide theatrically in the US 19 August.


*For further clarification see last year's interview with Guy Lawson by Bryan Schatz in Mother Jones. ("Here's something for you: None of this has changed!")

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