Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper, Ana de Armas
Director: Todd Phillips
Early on in the film, when an out-of-work David confides in Efraim his anxiety, the latter suggests “he join his business” — a proposition that results in an ethical conundrum. David responds, “But I am entirely anti-war: Iz and me, we visit rallies and protests and stuff”. Efraim dismisses his concern — he says, “What I do is not pro-war, it is pro-money.” This laterally arranged logic suffices for David to assume the status of Efraim’s collaborator — and to initiate the proceedings of the film’s narrative. Soon both self-identify as “war dogs” (“bottom feeders who make money of war — basically, suppliers of arms), register a company, begin picking up contracts and assume, in general, the respectability of a mid-level, cologne-heavy, warm-towel business in mainstream America. The amounts they deal in (millions, and soon, hundreds of millions) assuage David’s bleeding heart soon enough — thereby revealing a hypocrisy even more starker than Efraim’s.
His activist-partner wife displays an easy malleability of principles: she protests at first, but soon joins him in their glass-coated condominium, no questions asked. The film underlines, therefore, the simple, elegant logic that sustains much of America (a chapter-heading reads, “God Bless Dick Cheney’s America”): if it results in profit, it is good. At an orientation for acolyte-sharks, a new entrant into the company asks, “What do the A, E and Y in AEY Inc. stand for?” and in perhaps the most telling statement in the movie, Efraim responds, “It does not stand for anything. It does not have to” — an organisational credo is no longer a necessity; money is its own end. Or a variation at the ending, when the dream run of the two entrepreneurs has been brought to a grinding halt by a larger villain, who opens a suitcase full of money in front of David and says, “(ask) no more questions”.
Efraim and David are not too different, in fact, from the venerated founders of Facebook, as depicted in The Social Network — similar ideological conflicts abound: one is brutal in his pursuit of fulfillment of his company’s potential, and the other is cautious, even conservative. The grand irony of the whole affair in War Dogs in fact is, that the two — despite their meteoric success — are terrible businessmen: they end up at a national convention and are suddenly revealed to be, as the voiceover declares, “way out of their league”, and the bid they make for the work-order that will result in their downfall is $53 million lesser than the next-lowest. But within the film, there’s an implicit commentary on the new pursuers of the American dream — ordinary men in their 20s, usually tribal, irreverent, very enterprising — who end up forming the companies of the future, but may very well be sociopaths driven by an acute hedonism, a narrow view of life and of the world-at-large.
Here, Phillips smartly engages his well-honed capabilities of depicting how men in groups and their self-destructive tendencies. He applies it to the larger template of ammunition trade. While these men may have all the fun they wish to, there will always exist an agency more supreme than them that will control them. In this case it is Henry Picard. War Dogs also inherits a discussion of the middle-class corrective attitudes from Phillips’ earlier, blockbuster series: there, Alan is subject frequently to his friends’ concern and intervention and here, Efraim is the subject of dinner-conversations and gossip. Efraim is the true character in the film whose fraud and performance is consistent.
Phillips’ film features a genuine interest in systems — its depiction of weapon trade across the world is full of insight and detail — while effecting a style that is Scorsese-lite. Freeze frames, shifty narrators, a conscious retrospective of ballads from the 50s and 60s, swift track-ins pepper the film. Perhaps its most impressive accomplishment is its recognition of modern life as an experience derived essentially from quotations and phrases. The characters cite Scarface frequently but even more interestingly, each chapter in the film begins with a line of dialogue that will determine and set its tone.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...