Two twenty-somethings discover that America wants small business, particularly in an international arms dealing. If there’s money to be had, join the party. A glamorous based on a true story journey with way too much glitz and building with false audience sympathy.
In chat, we discuss our perspectives on War Dogs. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
jennism (Jenn Ng): So let’s talk about War Dogs, featured our millennial favorites Jonah Hill and Miles Teller
taiche (Chris Tai): Directed by Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover movies and Old School
jennism: Which says something about how the movie will go.
taiche: “Based on a true story.”
jennism: Based on a Rolling Stones article
taiche: OK, so it’s a sort of rags to riches tale of bro-tastic fulfillment fantasy. In others words, a Todd Phillips movie, haha
jennism: That’s quite a summary, because we know that this is a journey of rags to riches story then riches back to rags
taiche: One part Goodfellas, one part Scarface, one part Pain & Gain. So our bromance is centered around Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as two high school buddies that go into arms dealing. Exploiting loopholes in the U.S. government’s policies on buying military equipment.
jennism: David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, respectively, who are partners of AEY, a “small business” that function as the middle man between arms suppliers and buyers.
I mean, how can we not be impressed?
taiche: One thing that bugged: those names felt ethnic and the two main actors are not-so-much. I kinda chuckled inside everytime someone referred to Jonah Hill as Efraim.
jennism: In America, we’re all looking to achieve the American dream. If we really want to know, it’s just about who will strike it rich. I was impressed that the filmmakers decided to keep the name.
taiche: One early scene though, stuck out to me as a harbinger of things to come. The scene where Efraim goes to buy some pot from his usual dealer. The dealer isn’t home, but he spots a group of three guys that offer to sell him weed. They charge him $300 for the good stuff. He hands it over. They go about their business.
jennism: That is, the three guys pretend that nothing happened. The cash exchange? Never happened.
taiche: Efraim can’t let this injustice go. He goes to his car, takes out a submachine gun and fires it into the air… sending the guys running for their lives and he follows that up with his signature chuckle.
jennism: David is sitting in the car, watching all of this go down. In this scene, he serves as the audience’s moral center. What’s going on? What’s the right thing to do? Of course, justice!
taiche: This kind of tone and attitude is prevalent throughout the movie.
jennism: This scene in particular sets the tone for the relationship between David and Efraim who were supposed to be childhood buddies. Even David says at one point, “I always looked up to you, Efraim.”
taiche: We see much of the movie through David’s eyes, with his voiceovers giving us frames of reference
jennism: What’s interesting is that the movie works hard to make David sympathetic to the audience
taiche: Even so, I felt David’s character was thinly sketched… even after the movie ended, I was like, “who is this guy?”
jennism: It was glaringly obvious, especially on a re-read of the Rolling Stone article. These two are purely unlikable guys
taiche: I thought Efraim got the bulk of the character depth
jennism: David was made to be a loyal boyfriend, then husband. Then David was drawn as a devoted father.
taiche: Well, they painted David in a much more sympathetic light for the movie
jennism: Pity the man who gave everything to have a family, but don’t pity the one who masterminded the plan
taiche: Was he though? I didn’t think he came off as very loyal or devoted.
jennism: More than what one would expect as an international arms dealer!
taiche: I could never necessarily tell how he would react to a given situation
jennism: There was the five months of waiting for a bid to be accepted by the US military. Efraim runs across the beach interrupting family time. There’s a look that David has every time he looks at his child. One that says, “I really want to be a good father”. It felt cloying, because momentarily with Miles Teller’s talent, I did feel sorry for him. He needed money for the family! He needed to have a bigger place for his wife and child. He needed it! Whereas Efraim comes off unsympathetic, because he just wants to be filthy rich.
taiche: So obviously, there is some Hollywoodization of the original Rolling Stone article. Did you find it over the top? Or a fairly faithful representation of their story?
jennism: Yes, the movie was a glamourization of the Rolling Stones article. But it was no Argo. Instead we get characters that are drawn only for the purposes that they masterminded a plan that was devious and conniving
taiche: David was the audience’s surrogate. That was the word I was looking for. So the story goes, they go into business together, they use the US government’s open contracts for military supplies to their advantage as middlemen, dealing with the suppliers and manufacturers the US government can’t deal with directly.
jennism: But the plan does work. It’s exploiting the desires of two parties who want to make an exchange and the two guys just make it happen. Someone has to make it happen.
taiche: In some ways, the US government is the bad guy of the movie
jennism: Is it? It’s a victim and villan all in one.
The government wants something, but they can’t do it. So they make their request in the loudest way possible in hopes that someone would respond. And someone certainly does.
taiche: I think what frustrated me with this movie is that we had these unsympathetic characters battling the system, and in many ways, the US government is just as complicit in all this corruption, but we always felt only David and Efraim would end up punished.
jennism: Oh that’s so true
taiche: It was The Big Short meets Wolf of Wall Street
jennism: It’s this big entity that wins and can never lose. In the context of this story
taiche: The movie wanted us to think they were little guys that wanted a piece of the pie, at least crumbs… but that it wasn’t necessarily their fault they would eventually reach for the whole pie.
jennism: Yet War Dogs didn’t have the chilling effect of discovery that Big Short had. Our hearts were not caught in our throat by the evil of the Big Government. You can compare this movie to any other movie about striking it big. And I don’t think it’s that different
taiche: Well, depends on how the US military handles all their upcoming matters.
jennism: I certainly don’t think this movie is meant to enlighten their audience to make different choices in their lives
taiche: I thought a fascinating element was the story of the US government arming Afghan soldiers.
jennism: It’s not about that at all
taiche: We knew it happened in real life
jennism: There are moments where we feel a bit of hero worship from the filmmakers. The guys did something brilliant, and we are just witness to it
taiche: But it now seems so “sensible” that the US military would be obliged to arm these Afghans but would cut every single corner or do the minimum to pass muster
jennism: That’s the moral question not being asked enough. What is the real purpose of this? We are told repeatedly that it’s making money. And that as citizens of the United States, there’s little that we can do because the choices in war have already been made
taiche: “It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-money”. I enjoyed the elements targeting the US government’s shortsightedness and poor business dealings
jennism: In the Rolling Stones article, it says that Efraim loved saying movie-worthy lines. He acts like a star, because he believes it. As the audience, we are supposed to admire him for his balls. For his inability to sit down and take the typical way in
taiche: Like how AEY’s bid came in so below their competitors, and a comment was “for once the US taxpayers are actually getting a good deal”.
jennism: Efraim uncannily knows how to social engineer people so that they direct their resources to him.
taiche: But he can’t stand being shortchanged… again like that weed deal
jennism: He’s focused so much on the profit, that it doesn’t matter what else happens
taiche: He wants to be a middleman, but he doesn’t like it when there are others in on the deal
jennism: Generosity does not appear in his vocabulary
taiche: And so, the beginning of the end occurs when he works to cut Bradley Cooper’s Henry out of the supply chain. They’ve been dealing with shady contacts so much throughout the movie that it comes crashing down once they start “messing” with the system, preventing others from getting their cut. Ultimately, like the other movies mentioned, it’s a rise and fall in a shady occupation, which is often been a go-to story for Hollywood. Do you felt like this stood out from the others?
jennism: Here’s the thing: it was entertaining
taiche: It had a lot of flash and stylistic choices, which harkened back to Pain & Gain moreso than the other movies we compared it to
jennism: Whether due to great writing or great acting, we really did get some good laughs in moments that could have been much darker
taiche: That movie was also criticized for trivializing certain misdeeds and shining a spotlight on “not good” people
jennism: And yet the movie makes us believe that people who try hard shouldn’t be punished harshly. Because they tried really hard!
taiche: I think Jonah Hill really brought his character to life. There were certainly elements of the “movie star persona” that is discussed in the RS article present in the script
jennism: There’s this balance between pursuing passion and doing something incredibly illegal
taiche: It’s the American Dream after all. Well, despite that, they weren’t that harshly punished
jennism: Yes, Jonah Hill fully embraced the character. More so than other actors could. We could feel the sliminess the moment that he appeared on screen
taiche: Even with the mountain of evidence against them, including emails that say “repackage the Chinese ammo”. Was it his “chuckle”? By the way, I can’t believe how much weight he gained leading into this role.
jennism: He lost weight, only to gain it for this role? That’s acting for you
Yeah, compare him in this movie to 21/22 Jump Street. There was no reason to do so though, neither of the real life guys was that rotund.
jennism: I didn’t see how it built the character beyond creating a persona of Uncle Efraim, who will always shake out all the money out
taiche: Hopefully he stays healthy. So SeeETThere?
jennism: So see it for some good weekend entertainment. To understand how make some money (illegally) on the side and how the government is turning a blind eye in times of war.
taiche: SeeETThere: 6.5 Chinese ammo boxes out of 10
jennism: SeeETThere: 6 Chinese ammo boxes out of 10
taiche: So SeeIt if you want to hear a fun story about corruption and the American Dream. It’s quite funny in parts even with a third act that turns predictably dark. Expect quite a bit of crass attitudes and characters. Don’t look for much in the female character development.
jennism: In fact, start to wonder why the girlfriend and the child is even present. Eye candy? Sympathy-building? To fulfill a diversity requirement? What a waste to not leverage them into actual good plot points
taiche: See it for a story about the corruption that penetrates the arms industry and how the US often turns a blind eye when it serves their interests. Well again, it is a descendent of the Hangover movies, and it shows. Now let’s go run some guns. 🙂
jennism: Go get them
With the war in Iraq raging on, Efraim Diveroli offers childhood friend David Packouz a chance to make big bucks by becoming an international arms dealer. Together, they exploit a government initiative that allows businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts. Starting small allows the duo to rake in money and live the high life. They soon find themselves in over their heads after landing a $300 million deal to supply Afghan forces, a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people.
Directors: Todd Phillips
Writers: Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Bradley Cooper