Like numberless films in recent years, “War Dogs,” directed by Todd Phillips, tells a true story (based on a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson); and, like some of those pictures – Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” – it’s partially a satire on the greed, fraud and corruption that power the contemporary American experience. What’s different about “War Dogs” is that the protagonists are younger and the historical moment at which it takes place – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the presidency of George W. Bush – is closer to the present, thus adding a degree of immediacy.
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Another difference is that “War Dogs” addresses fearlessly the ease with which two notably incompetent machers defrauded the American government. In the same vein, the two wars the United States fought in the first decade of this century are depicted as an economic business (which is undoubtedly true of other wars, too).
“War Dogs” belongs to the buddy film tradition; that is, it follows the adventures of two men, usually different character types, between whom partnership and fraternity develop. In this case, the two, David Packouz (Miles Teller, from “Whiplash”) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), were best friends in Miami as children and during yeshiva studies. They lost touch with each other but meet again at a funeral; it turns out that Efraim has returned to Miami, where David is still living.
At 22, David is a college dropout whose efforts to plan his economic future attest to his disconnect from the world around him. He’s a masseur for a clientele of wealthy elderly men, but when that proves insufficiently remunerative, he comes up with a seemingly brilliant idea to sell high-end bedding to old-age homes. However, the institutions aren’t interested, claiming that the old folk won’t notice the difference. Result: David’s apartment is piled high with boxes of unwanted bedding. David, who initially seems to be a nice guy, albeit bland and slow on the uptake, feels even more squeezed economically when his partner, Iz (Ana de Armas), becomes pregnant.
Meanwhile the Bush administration, accused of undertaking arms transactions with just a few megacorporations, decided to open its weapons tenders to everyone. Efraim, who responded to the call and became an arms dealer, suggests that David become his business partner. David accepts the offer, even though he – like Efraim – is against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and loathes the Bush administration.
Efraim is presented as the opposite of the temperate, introverted David. He’s aggressive, vulgar and openly greedy. Jonah Hill plays him like a kind of toady monster who says whatever comes into his head and doesn’t hesitate to take a machine gun out of his car trunk and shoot at goons who are trying to attack him, this with a bizarre laugh that lends him an almost psychopathic dimension. David is not exactly thrilled with the personality of this childhood friend who has vaulted back into his life, but the opportunity to make big money under government auspices induces him to join Efraim in his various schemes, even if he has no idea what he’s getting into.
Tainted by fraud
David is compelled to keep his business relations with Efraim a secret from his pregnant partner. In fact, the constant need to lie is one of the elements that constitute the moral universe of “War Dogs” (the title refers to the sobriquet given to the arms merchants who worked with the U.S. government). Efraim and David conduct diverse transactions, all of them tainted by fraud. They win a tender to sell a large number of Berettas to an American officer in Iraq, without knowingthat Italy has imposed an embargo on arms shipments to that country. To get around this hurdle to the big bucks, David, who is Efraim’s gofer, is sent to Jordan, which is not taking part in the embargo, and from there to Iraq, in one of the film’s most riveting and amusing episodes.
David and Efraim get even more deeply entangled when they meet a mysterious legendary arms dealer named Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). He involves them in a deal to sell 100 million rounds of ammunition to the army of Afghanistan, which is fighting the Taliban. David goes to Albania, where the ammunition is stored and which is depicted as the world’s biggest arsenal. But the ammo turns out to be old Chinese bullets, possibly no longer operational, on top of which Washington has prohibited the sale of Chinese-made arms. If you want to know how this problem – which gets David on the wrong side of local hoodlums and of Girard – is solved you’ll have to see the movie.
David, who jumps at every command from Efraim, becomes rich and buys a luxury home in Miami for his family, which now includes a baby daughter. All his initial moral qualms have gradually faded away; morality has no part in the reality we’re shown on the screen. However, this being an American film, morality will reappear at some point. Iz leaves David, taking their daughter with her, when she realizes that he has been lying to her about what he does for a living and the source of his sudden wealth. But she returns, lured by David’s promise that he will never lie to her again, and also, perhaps even more, by the newfound prosperity. David himself discovers the scale of the corruption and fraud he’s involved in. This turnabout, too, is portrayed without tendentious cloying and, like the other plot elements, is rife with satiric elements and drenched in irony.
If “War Dogs” has an additional satiric target beyond corrupt arms deals in wartime and the Bush administration’s policy of opening up the arms trade to all and sundry (in one of the movie’s best scenes, Efraim almost blows a gasket in frustration when he wins a tender only because he made the lowest bid) – it is that what looks like true friendship, a valued and almost sacrosanct value, is mere illusion and itself a form of fraud.
It’s not that “War Dogs” is extraordinarily bold in its subversive thrust – other films have dealt more bluntly with the business side of war. Still, in its own way it displays considerable daring in evoking some of the darkest aspects of the American consciousness and its manifestation in practice. The film’s power derives from the fact that it does this amusingly and with irony aimed at a reality controlled from above, which generates the greed that powers the American engine in wartime and peacetime alike. This is certainly Todd Phillips’ most significant film (he’s known mainly for his series of “The Hangover” comedies) to date.
In fact, what the director’s earlier comedies and “War Dogs” have in common is their depiction of the partially exotic adventures of a generation whose desire for instant gratification deprives it of judiciousness. Some of Phillips’ comedies demonstrated his skill as a purveyor of entertainment. His new film shows that he is capable of more than that, and it will be interesting to see whether that “more” will be continued.