Cinema feeds on cinema. No cinematic work is crafted in a vacuum and contemporary works refer back to previous ones. Sometimes in very inventive ways, other times for nothing more that pure derivation. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it can be. But it can also be plain laziness.
That laziness is what makes Todd Phillips’s latest, War Dogs, such a disappointment. Here are a story and a style, extremely familiar and highly derivative for all the wrong reasons. Based on the Rolling Stones article, “The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders,” by Guy Larson — later expanded into the book Arms and the Dudes and much more interesting than the film adaptation — War Dogs is the true story of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two American lost boys who find an identity and the American Dream as weapon dealers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most remarkable aspect of Packouz and Diveroli’s story lies in their origin as arms dealers. Following the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was exposed that most of the big defense contracts went to Vice President Dick Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton — Cheney was CEO from 1995 to 2000. To combat this embarrassment, the United States government set up a website, Federal Business Opportunities, where independent contractors could bid on defense contracts. From Larson’s article:
Packouz and Diveroli had picked the perfect moment to get into the arms business. To fight simultaneous wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration had decided to outsource virtually every facet of America’s military operations, from building and staffing Army bases to hiring mercenaries to provide security for diplomats abroad. After Bush took office, private military contracts soared from $145 billion in 2001 to $390 billion in 2008. Federal contracting rules were routinely ignored or skirted, and military-industrial giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin cashed in as war profiteering went from war crime to business model.
In the movie, Diveroli explains: the big money contracts still go to those in the in crowd, but the nickel and dime stuff, the crumbs, is up for grabs. And Diveroli is the rat that feeds off of crumbs.
But all of this is glossed over in one of Phillips’s many montages — driven by classic rock music and Packouz’s voice-over narration. In fact, classic rock and Packouz’s Salinger-esque narration drives War Dogs for the entirety of the movie’s running time, explaining various details that Phillips has no acumen or patience to explain visually. Instead, Phillips chooses to tell this tale with title cards, fast-moving cameras and a whole lot of masculine bravado, the kind of bravado that Phillips has picked up from other movies, specifically Goodfellas.
But while Phillips can crib Scorsese visual style, soundtrack and actor, he can’t make War Dogs a Scorsese picture if he tried. Phillips lacks Scorsese insight, his wit and, most importantly, his morality. No matter how despicable a Scorsese lead may be — and many of them are down right dreadful — they all know that they are playing with house money and sooner or later, the hammer will fall. There is no sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Packouz and Diveroli. Just a poster from Scarface that Diveroli cherishes a bit too much. And without a shred of awareness of what it truly represents.
And to what greater purposes does Philips mine these movies for? To comment on contemporary culture? Or to merely trick viewers into liking War Dogs because they liked Scarface and Goodfellas? Both of those movies borrowed heavily from other movies, genres and directors, but they did so in a way that changed the context and the meaning of those images. They didn’t simply Xerox the effect, they transformed it to suit their needs. As film scholar David Bordwell points out: “You need to ask not only ‘Where from?’ but ‘What for?’ In other words, you have to ask how elements that a filmmaker inherits get repurposed for the particular movie.”
Concerning War Dogs, those elements are repurposed for no other reason than commercial gain.