Arms and the bros: Hangover director brings incredible true story to the screen
The economy of war and the audacity of youth brilliantly collide in writer/director Todd Phillips’s new picture War Dogs. A heavily fictionalized dramatization of Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article (and later book), the film details the spectacular rise and fall of two 20-something young men from Miami Beach who became major international arms dealers during the heart of the Iraq War.
Phillips, best known for directing the Hangover trilogy and writing films II and III in that series, as well as the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Borat, brings a similar irreverent, breezy comic style to the proceedings here that serve to underscore the situation’s ridiculousness and the hubris of the young men. Co-written with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic, the War Dogs screenplay and the film’s tone are more than a little reminiscent of last year’s The Big Short, another picture that dramatized a head-shakingly unbelievable story with sardonic verve.
Like that picture, War Dogs benefits from wry voice-over narration, provided here by one of our (anti) heroes: college dropout David Packouz (Miles Teller). When we first meet David, he’s living with a girlfriend in Miami, working somewhat miserably as a masseuse, and trying to sell silk bed sheets to nursing homes (like “wrapping a lizard in cashmere” one nursing home administrator tells him, rejecting the sale, in an example of one of the script’s many acerbic one liners).
At a mutual friend’s funeral, David runs into his old high school buddy Efraim (Jonah Hill), a high school drop out now back in Miami after a stint working for his uncle in Los Angeles bidding on government supply contracts. Efraim quickly convinces David that he can make more money pouring through the federal contracts database (“like eBay for war”) with him to arrange deals and act as the middlemen for selling equipment and supplies to the U.S. military. At the time of the film, circa 2005, the military was required to offer a certain number of contracts to small businesses, so the two friends take advantage of that provision, and decide to make their sole client the U.S. military. And, of course, the largest sums of money to be made with this particular client come not from sheets or cutlery, but from arms and ammunition.
The rest of the film is a study in chutzpah and deceit, as we follow David and Efraim through their adventures and misadventures in the shadowy world of international arms dealing, a world that brings them to a Las Vegas arms trade show (where they meet a shady arms dealer played with sinister reptilian coolness by Bradley Cooper), the heart of the Iraq war zone, and an old and forgotten Albanian arms storage bunker. As Efraim, especially, gets cockier and greedier, the strain on the young men’s business partnership — and friendship — grows, and the precariousness of their situation becomes steadily more apparent. Phillips, Teller, and Hill convey the thrilling highs and stunning lows of the story with appropriate shock and awe, leaving us simultaneously aghast and impressed with the boys’ moxie.
The picture wouldn’t work nearly as well without Hill, whose manic energy and dogged pursuit of bigger and better contracts ultimately cause his comeuppance. Hill brings to Efraim a brash confidence and showmanship that borders on deranged, but the technical skill required to play such a character without devolving into broad farce shouldn’t be dismissed; his performance is expertly rendered, and amazing to watch.
Teller holds his own in the less showy role of the reluctant accomplice, but shines in some scenes, especially in a tête–à–tête with Cooper near the picture’s end. And Kevin Pollack, as the boys’ silent partner, brings a perplexed, naïve do-gooder warmth to his scenes. In one of the very few female roles, Ana de Armas, as David’s frustrated girlfriend Iz, manages to bring complexity to an underwritten role.
But in the end, the picture works best as a commentary on the unchecked greed and the enterprise of war; at one point Efraim says he’s not pro war; he’s pro money. War Dogs excellently portrays how even the most small-time entrepreneurs can succeed in a bureaucratic, often mismanaged system that rewards nerve and unbridled fearlessness. Theater programmers might consider putting this film on a double bill with The Big Short as a jaw-dropping expose of the inner workings of the American military-industrial complex; at least we’ll be able to laugh through our alarm.
War Dogs opens today at Bay Area theaters.