Whilst the concept is nothing new, War Dogs might be the most surprising film of 2016.
“What do you know about war? They’ll tell you it’s about patriotism, democracy… or some shit about the other guy hating our freedom. But you wanna know what it’s really about? What do you see? A kid from Arkansas doing his patriotic duty to defend his country? I see a helmet, fire-retardant gloves, body armor and an M16. I see $17, 500. That’s what it costs to outfit one American soldier. Over two million soldiers fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. It cost the American taxpayer $4.5 billion each year just to pay the air conditioning bills for those wars. And that’s what war is really about. War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” – David Packouz
War Dogs is a deceiving film but for a good reason. When you watch the trailers I won’t be surprised if you came away with the feeling of The Hangover meets Lord of War. Expect plenty of laughs and Ken Jeong making some hilarious cameo…
But in actual fact, the opposite happens.
While there’s some laugh out moments, War Dogs is a dramatic showing which is the surprising thing. Directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy), War Dogs is led by some top performances in Miles Teller and Jonah Hill and is backed by a well-constructed and evolving story. However it’s also a predictable story, relying on clichéd acts and moments of irresponsibility, all set to a cacophony of sound from a familiar jukebox soundtrack. But in the film’s defence, whilst it may lose on the originality front, it’s a simple story told well and it works.
It’s heavily influenced by Scarface, Efraim’s key source of inspiration. He quotes it. He models himself on it, including the lifestyle. He has a giant size canvas poster on his office wall. Even the War Dogs film poster is a direct reference! In other words, Scarface becomes an intentional parody. Efraim sees himself as a star, a wannabe kingpin of the arms trade.
But War Dogs goes a step further, taking influence from films such as The Wolf of Wall Street, Casino and Goodfellas. It’s the classic tale of rags to riches. It’s that feeling of being a wise guy and being smarter than everyone else. It’s that feeling of being on top of the world whilst narrating your way through life like a glorified testimony of short-lived accomplishments. War Dogs effectively becomes an homage to Scorsese in terms of style and direction. It’s certainly not as hard-hitting but it charts the rise and fall of characters in the ultimate pursuit of the American Dream.
But what is the American Dream?
It’s a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” – quotes attributed to James Truslow Adams who first coined the phrase in his book The Epic of America.
Whether you believe in the notion or not, if you’ve watched enough films or TV shows, the American Dream is often portrayed as an idyllic aspiration that somehow contradicts Adam’s definition. In popular media, this set of ideals is often shown as materialistic. The perfect house, the perfect white picket fence and the perfect family. The dream is ablaze with so much bright light, you might as well wear sunglasses. It is the reward on reaching the promise land in whatever shape or form and whether it’s a direct or indirect reference, that attractive lifestyle becomes more of a product placement. In some cases, the need for that lifestyle leads to excessive desires. You want what they have and the American Dream becomes a game of perception vs. reality. You only have to look at Jonah Hill’s character, Donnie Azoff in The Wolf of Wall Street when he first encounters Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) or in this film itself – it’s the expensive Miami apartment and owning matching cars with aptly named licence plates of “Guns & Ammo”.
You see War Dogs shares the same commonality as Scarface, Casino, Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street. The American Dream becomes a twisted and distorted augmentation on reality. Sure, there’s hard work involved, but it has nothing to do with re-shifting the social equilibrium.
It’s the manner in which they try to achieve it. It’s about opportunity, looking for a way out of their current and dire circumstances. They aspire to the “better, richer and fuller” aspect of Adams’ quote but it becomes a selfish, egotistical desire that justifies their greediness. It’s about exploiting the hierarchical system in order to become powerful and abundantly wealthy.
In War Dogs, that exploitation comes in the form of a Government style craigslist for military weapons. David and Efraim fed off the crumbs in order to fulfil gun orders. They brokered deals without putting their hands on the weapons themselves (unless it was under desperate circumstances). It allowed them to work with minimum trouble, operating under the radar and under cutting the competition. With a few successes under their belt, they built up the company into a position where it could bid big or go home.
That naturally leads unto my following point. There’s two unsurprising things about War Dogs.
One is the system exploitation. As David Packouz (Miles Teller) says, war is an economy. There’s no business to be made if the world is living in peace and harmony and as David eloquently explains, the Iraq and Afghanistan War changed everything. Rules were relaxed and altered. The Bush administration allowing small businesses a piece of the pie when it came to defence contracts, thus providing the loophole for Efraim and David to enter the stage to become ‘merchants of death’.
The other unsurprising thing? This is based on a true story.
[while cutting through the line at the airport in Jordan with David] “Sorry. Don’t worry, I have to go first, I’m American.” – Efraim Diveroli
Let’s just admit it to ourselves…we all have that one bastard friend right?
You know the one.
Never reliable. Never accountable for their actions. Gives tons of excuses. Leaves you in a tight spot.
No? Maybe it’s just me then!
But seriously. Jonah Hill’s Efraim is that bastard friend! The warning signs were there throughout but David refuses to acknowledge them.
It’s easy to be a little sympathetic. The story is told from the rational perspective of David. He guides and educates us through the madness as you watch two friends go through an up and down, drug and money fuelled adventure. There’s no time for morals or to get political. Did they have feelings about the war and where they stand? In David’s case, yes. But when increased fortunes and lavish tastes take control, war takes a back seat. They are “pro-gun”. They are Goldilocks to the Government’s Three Bears and they are stealing out of the cookie jar, embodying Scarface’s lasting legacy of “the world is yours.”
While Miles Teller is brilliant, the real stand out performance comes from Jonah Hill. For someone who you normally associate primarily with comedy films, his performance shows how far he’s come as an actor, taking versatile risks and embracing a dramatic nature in order to play a character who is completely self-centred.
Efraim is all about making maximum profit with money. Doesn’t matter if he has to short change someone in the process, doing business with shady operators or drastically altering a plan – as long as the money ends up in his back pocket and he’s winning, all is good in the world. He’s certainly not afraid of getting his hands dirty or playing a lying part to make sure deals get done. He also has a sadistic laugh which is part Joker and part “I’m not sure I can take this seriously.” The laugh usually comes at a point where he discovers a bright idea or there’s something to celebrate.
He clearly loves what he does. Only a person with a certain level of arrogance can go to the boot of their car and pull out a machine gun when he was about be short-changed on a purchase of weed. Only a person with a certain level of arrogance can belittle an office colleague just because he wanted to know what AEY stands for. You only have to compare his reactions when his authority is being challenged or he doesn’t get what he wants or if he’s losing money to showcase where his true loyalty lies. His power comes in showing dominance and as much as David is a valued friend, friendship is an expendable commodity.
However for someone who idolizes Scarface, he fails to recognise or take hint at the frailties that the film presents and that’s the major problem. Efraim may glorify Tony Montana (Al Pacino) but he goes through the same symptoms as his hero. The excessive lifestyle followed by bouts of paranoia, suspicion and self-made mistakes are unsustainable. The American Dream becomes a short-lived endeavour, imploding and undone by their own insecurity and risks. That’s why when everything falls apart and their world comes crashing down, it’s more of a thunderous slap to the face than a gentle pat on the back.
That’s what makes War Dogs an enjoyable film. In essence, it’s the study in the relationship between David and Efraim. It’s the battling struggle of two long time friends having the world in the palm of their young hands. They took on the establishment and were successful. But it’s their insecurity (on Efraim’s part), their stupidity (on David’s part) and their gambled inexperience that rips that relationship apart. They can only blame themselves.
Don’t expect anything special or some eye-opening revelation. War Dogs shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just enjoy the cautionary tale of this crazy journey and the brilliant performance by Jonah Hill.
They lived the dream…and they crashed and burned.