By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief
Director and screenwriter Todd Phillips has built a career – along with something of a cottage industry – at the furthest extremes of debauchery and depravity. Mr. Phillips’ first film, made while he was still a student at NYU, is a documentary about a now-deceased punk rock singer known for physically assaulting his own audiences in such repulsive ways that I would rather have his name continue to fade into obscurity than mention it again here. Released in the mid-1990s, this documentary remains the highest-grossing American student film ever.
A formula discovered – point a camera at anti-social behavior and capture the results – Phillips soon became embraced by the mainstream. His early hits, like 2003’s Old School, and the first of the Hangover movies, released in 2009, tempered the perversion with some heart, as if following up a sucker punch to the jaw with an apology card and a hug. His characters may have been wallowing in the depths of solipsistic immorality, but you liked them.
Within the darkness, Phillips even found moments of ironic sublimity, like the images of a dusky Las Vegas set to Glenn Danzig’s melancholic “Thirteen” that open the first Hangover movie. Behind the gloss and glitz, this sequence very effectively argues, are occulted worlds of decay and dissolution; an echo of Blue Velvet’s opening scene in which the camera travels from images of picket fence suburban serenity to the underground ecosystem of slithering worms and gnashing beetles existing beneath perfectly manicured lawns.
Yet in recent movies, Phillips has grown misanthropic and nihilistic. Those glimpses of tenderness have been excised and held up for ridicule. Staying true to his shock-rock roots, Phillips realized that what filled theater seats was the destruction and carnage he was known for and, consummate entertainer that he is, he gives the people what they want. In other words, it’s safe to say that Thailand was not chosen as the location for the second Hangover movie due to the nation’s natural beauty, but for the myriad avenues of vice that Bangkok’s red light districts provide.
It’s only natural, then, that in his recently released War Dogs, Phillips sets his sights on that most nihilistic of industries: global arms dealing. As the real David Packouz, one of the film’s principal characters, is quoted as saying in the Rolling Stone article by journalist Guy Lawson that inspired the film, “Nobody goes into the arms business for altruistic purposes.”
The film’s elevator pitch premise – Wouldn’t it be funny if a couple of twenty-something potheads became international arms dealers? – would be a lark, fodder for another foul-mouthed action-comedy romp, if not for the fact that it actually happened.
The action takes place in the latter part of those heady years between the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 global financial crisis, with the US embroiled in two wars and trying desperately to extricate itself from both. David Packouz is an average twenty-four-year-old American male of the NINJA set – no income, no job, no assets. He lives contentedly with his girlfriend, the two casually opposing the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, and makes ends meet working as a massage therapist. This all changes when Packouz reconnects with high school friend Efraim Diveroli.
After high school, Diveroli has cashed in working with his uncle, buying firearms at police auctions and reselling them at a markup over the internet – an ethical red flag if there ever was one. But like many scions cut into the family business, Diveroli has kicked things up a notch, or, in this case, poured high-test gasoline over everything and lit a match.
He stumbled across a website called FedBizOpps, a clearinghouse for the procurement of military materiel – “Ebay but for war,” as Diveroli describes it in the film. This real-life detail dovetails nicely with the Bush Administration’s policy of outsourcing the functions of war to private military contractors (PMCs); an enormous cost to the American taxpayer but a PR windfall in terms of on-paper troop reduction. As calculated by the Economist, for each soldier on the ground in Iraq during major combat operations, there was one PMC employee either behind the scenes or on the front lines.
This site, by the way, is still operational, and completely open to the public. A recent perusal of its listings found that the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs is seeking the delivery and installation of a drugs incinerator in Guatemala, and the U.S. Army’s Department of Medical Research is soliciting stainless-steel non-human primate transport boxes, name-brand or equivalent. Due to a Bush-era small business initiative that rewards procurers for working with non-Fortune 500 companies (no doubt due to the fallout from such scandals as the Cheney-Halliburton fiasco), our dynamic duo is soon doing things like funneling Italian-made Beretta pistols to Afghanistan’s new police force.
As the checks roll in, shiny new Porsches appear, and Packouz moves his girlfriend and newborn baby into a sleek, modern Miami high-rise, the couple’s anti-war idealism falls by the wayside. After all, the business of America, as Calvin Coolidge once barked, is business.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre, warned Yeats, things fall apart, and the center cannot hold. The film’s white whale comes in the form of a supply contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars won by our gun-hawking Cheech and Chong based solely on their naively underbidding the nearest competitor by fifty million dollars. This contract entails, as a start, the delivery of one hundred million rounds of AK-47 ammunition. The pair starts scouring the “Stans:” former Soviet Union satellites which, in the latter days of the Cold War, began arming themselves to the teeth in advance of a potential invasion by the US, or Russia, or whomever else may have decided that their country was prime strategic territory.
Next comes the usual sturm, drang, shrink-wrapped pallets of greenbacks, marital troubles, drugs, backstabbing, and words you wouldn’t use in front of your mother: The Wolf of Wall Street with instruments of death instead of penny stocks. The house of cards comes tumbling down with a call for quotes from the New York Times’ C.J. Chivers, in advance of an F.B.I. raid that lands both young men in boiling-hot water.
It’s here that the film, while admittedly compelling, becomes derelict in its duties. Marine Corps Major General Smedley “Old Gimlet Eye” Butler, a man so patriotic that he had the Corps’ emblem tattooed from throat to belly (and was also the central figure in the relentlessly fascinating Business Plot), wrote in his 1935 anti-interventionist tract War is a Racket, “[War] is the only [industry] in which profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
In this sense, War Dogs shows us only half of the picture: all of the profit and none of the loss. The destination points of the munitions, and the ends to which they are put to use, are of no concern to the film or its characters. Politics, sectarian violence, anarchy loosed upon the world (returning to Yeats); all of these are overshadowed by the Almighty Dollar.
This all constitutes something we can term the “Anti-Global Mindset.” The real Packouz again: “Efraim was a Republican because they started more wars. When the United States invaded Iraq, he was thrilled. He said to me, ‘Do I think George Bush did the right thing for the country by invading Iraq? No. But am I happy about it? Absof***inglutely.’ He hoped we would invade more countries because it was good for business.”
This is misanthropy in its purest form: let the world destroy itself as long as I can turn a profit from it. Lawson’s article describes how their line of business became a source of extreme pride and distinction, and of dominance over their high school peers. Oh, really? You just got a 10% salary bump? That’s great; I just inked a $300 million gun-running contract with the Department of Defense. Don’t worry about the drinks; tonight’s on me.
Despite my resolving not to identify the subject of Phillip’s first film, its title bears mentioning: Hated. War Dogs, if it had aspired to any sort of depth or substance, should have functioned as a spiritual sequel to this earlier film. There’s a lot to hate in War Dogs: the disregard for human life, the repeated violations of international arms embargoes, the portions of the Bush Doctrine that outsourced the state’s monopoly on violence to twenty-four-year-old stoners and publicly-traded corporations (something that even Milton Friedman, the patron saint of free-marketeers, warned against, though he had little to say on the subject of bongs), and the unabashed worship of profit.
To that end, War Dogs isn’t depraved enough. While we should leave the theater feeling revulsion and disdain for the principal characters, we’re left feeling…ambivalent; it’s just another case of privileged American males behaving badly and experiencing consequences far less severe than those from whose misfortune they profited.
Save yourself $10 and a couple of hours and read the Rolling Stone article instead; it’s far more enlightening.