July 28, 2019

War Dogs (2016)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Todd Phillips
Stars: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas

What it's about. It's Bush Junior's second term, and the Federal government is blowing spectacular amounts of money fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Sunnis in Iraq. Much of that money goes to defense contractors, and the trough is so wide and deep that the big players, such as Northrop Grumman, can't consume it all.

Enter Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a young adult with a checkered business history. He has discovered that it is easy to make a lot of money fulfilling U.S. Military contracts that the giant players consider too small to bother with. Efraim is greedy and ambitious, and he needs to hire employees to expand his booming business.

So, he employs his former high school friend David Packouz (Miles Teller), a handsome everyman who earns a living giving massages to gay elderly men. Because it is a movie, David has a spectacular wife Iz (Ana de Armas) and a baby on the way. He needs money, something Efraim promises to deliver.

All goes well for the business, though David's relationship with Iz is threatened by his lies concerning the ethics and risks of his venture. David is approached by Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), a major international arms dealer who is barred from direct business with the U.S. military. Girard has an offer that David and Efraim cannot refuse. He will help them win the bid for a ginormous contract via decades=old surplus arms in Albania.

It looks like Efraim and David will soon be swimming in money, but red tape in securing and delivering the arms forces them to journey to distant and increasingly dangerous foreign countries. Efraim's greed nearly costs David his life, and the two have a falling out. The Feds finally get wise and take down our leads.

How others will see it. War Dogs was a moderate box office success, overcoming fairly costly production costs. It has apparently done well in its video release, given the 155K user votes at imdb.com. The user ratings are respectable but decline moderately with advancing age, from 7.4 under 18 to 7.0 over 45. Older audiences may disapprove of the actions of our antiheroes, particularly Efraim, who would shoot his grandma if it was for his own benefit.

Some viewers were disappointed because the film was marketed as a comedy, which is understandable since the director, Todd Phillips, is best known for the Hangover franchise. Others found Jonah Hill annoying, and wonder why anyone would give the time of day, much less trust him with their money.

How I felt about it. As of 2019, the U.S. government has spent five trillion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. You might wonder how this happened, since 9/11 occurred less than 20 years ago. This movie helps explain how. Military contracts. An amoral opportunist can have a field day, helping the Defense Department rip off the American taxpayer.

But the work isn't quite as easy as it looks. If you default on a contract, you are out of business. And as these men learn, if you commit fraud, you just might go to prison. Or get murdered in a lawless foreign land.

Of course, the movie is exaggerated. Most of 'em are. Presumably, the real Efraim didn't confront into a ghetto gang by discharging a semiautomatic weapon into the sky. I understand the real Efraim and David weren't stupid enough to risk their lives smuggling a cache of weapons into the heart of Iraq. For that matter, David's wife probably wasn't a perfect ten, either. And maybe Efraim didn't blow thousands of dollars on prostitutes, though if he had a belly like Jonah Hill he might have considered that the best plan.

Not that I personally know the difference, but apparently film locations supposedly set in Albania were instead in Romania. Which would certainly be more forgivable if the supporting actors and extras for those scenes were speaking Albanian instead of Romanian.

But I don't speak any second language aside from a few hundred words in Spanish. And I'm fine with David's wife looking great. And Efraim can personify the Ugly American. We know such characters exist. One is even "our" President. And, yeah, if tens of millions of dollars were on the line, these two young men just might roll the dice on a smuggling adventure in Iraq.

In other words, the movie works better if you regard it as fiction, instead of loosely based on a true story. Yet even as fiction, it rings true, because greed, corruption, ambition, and incompetence are eternal flaws of human nature. And eventually your luck will run out.