Movie Review: War Dogs (2016)
“Hustling their way to the American Dream”
War Dogs (2016)
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper
Synopsis: Two young American men win a contract from the US government to supply artillery to the Afghan army.
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Todd Phillips’ War Dogs has the kind of plot which could be dismissed as the intemperate fantasies of an inexperienced mind were it not for the fact that it was culled from the well-documented exploits of Efraim Diveroli, played here with a vibrant energy by Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, Sausage Party), and David Packouz (Miles Teller – 21 & Over, Divergent), two men who, in their early twenties, were somehow entrusted by the US Government with a multi-million dollar contract to supply the entire Afghan militia. Diveroli was already a millionaire veteran of the industry by then, having established his company, AEY Inc., while still a teenager. Only when things took off did he recruit the aid of former schoolfriend Packouz to help him run the business.
It’s really the buccaneering Diveroli’s story, but Phillips gives centre stage to Packouz, simply because the audience has to sympathise with one of these guys, and Diveroli is not the kind of man with whom many people can identify. How far that means War Dogs departs from the truth when it comes to the relationship between the two men is anybody’s guess, but there’s a nagging feeling throughout that Packouz is portrayed just a little too much as the seduced innocent. It’s an imbalance that’s compounded by the wealth of information we’re given about Packouz’s (entirely fictional) domestic life compared to that of Diveroli, who remains this shadowy, Machiavellian figure lurking on the fringes of Packouz’s life for much of the time.
The movie follows a predictable path – but in an entertaining fashion that is never dull. Packouz slowly loses sight of what is important in life as he embraces the spurious glamour of his lucrative new profession while professing astonishment at the lengths to which Diveroli will go to fulfil an order. The small but cosy flat he shares with his wife is traded for a mausoleum-like modern apartment that is all cold white angles and empty spaces, providing a sterile contrast to the heart-pumping thrill of outrunning native militia in a tired truck overburdened with arms in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. The marriage becomes strained. A downfall is inevitable, and Phillips would have us believe it will arise from Diveroli’s mounting megalomania, coupled with a growing drug habit and unfortunate preoccupation with Pacino’s Scarface. Actuality intervenes, however, and a deal brokered with shady middle-man Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) proves to be the pin that bursts the bubble.
War Dogs is the kind of restless movie that would forsake realism entirely in its quest to deliver a visceral kick, but is unable to do so because the facts keep getting in the way. Its relentless pace and nervous energy is complemented by Hill’s tour-de-force performance, which monopolises our attention at all times. Even when he’s not on screen, the story revolves around his character, and the colourless Teller struggles to make any kind of impression as he’s buffeted around in Hill’s slipstream, giving a performance that firmly relegates Packouz to the status of gullible sidekick.
Phillips opts for the Scorsese style of storytelling for War Dogs, even having Teller provide a Henry Hill-style voiceover at times. It’s the right choice for the subject matter, even if it does invite generally unfavourable comparisons. It’s the kind of movie that will appeal to devotees of Scorsese, even as its reprimanded by the critics. Phillips won’t mind that. He doesn’t make movies for the critics, and War Dogs proves to be consistently entertaining throughout, faltering only in the final scenes with a needlessly ambiguous ending which is rendered redundant by the film’s ‘based on a true story’ tag.
(Reviewed 29th August 2016)