War Dogs was originally called Arms and the Dudes, which is a clever title, except it makes the movie sound like some sort of stoner comedy about bumbling weapons dealers from the guy who made the Hangover movies. And it’s not that at all. Oh, it is directed and cowritten by Todd Phillips, who wrote two and directed all three of the Hangover flicks, and it is about young arms dealers who frequently partake in illegal substances. But it’s not The Hangover with Guns. War Dogs is a comedy only in the darkest, bleakest way. It’s cynical, but it’s satire only in the sense that the whole world has become a parody of itself, like how you often cannot tell these days whether a news headline is from The New York Times or The Onion. And this movie most definitely does come via a headline: it’s based on a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson. A factual, journalistic article. About stuff that, you know, really happened. (A book-length extension of the true story was recently published, too.) The movie War Dogs is most like is Andrew Niccol’s 2005 Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage a small-time freelance arms dealer. Who was fictional. While we were all enjoying that movie at cinemas that autumn, the real-life events depicted here were just about to kick off.
What happened is this: The “gold rush” of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for private military contractors and defense suppliers hit a roadblock when it was revealed that cronies of Bush administration officials were being awarded sweet no-bid contracts. To make up for that, to make the process more open, the US Federal government opened a public web site, FedBizOpps.gov, an “eBay for military contracts,” as it is snarkily called herein. (Go on, click on over to it. It’s still up, and anyone can look at it. Insanity.) When 20something David Packouz (Miles Teller: Allegiant, Fantastic Four) runs into his old junior-high-school friend in Miami in 2005, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill: Hail, Caesar!, True Story) is making a killing on small-potatoes contracts through this site, jobs way too small for the mega defense corps to pay any attention to but ideal for a hustler like Diveroli. “I live on crumbs like a rat,” Diveroli says proudly. But those crumbs are worth millions. He invites Packouz — who has been struggling as a massage therapist and part-time bedsheet salesman — to come work for him.
They make a lot of money together.
“God bless Dick Cheney’s America,” an onscreen intercard notes. The entirety of War Dogs drips with that sort of meta sarcasm, contrasting the rah-rah triumph of the American dream of Diveroli’s entrepreneurism with the total lack of conscience required for such success… not to mention the “ideals” of warmongering and profiteering on death and destruction that were being so baldly and publicly celebrated at the time. (So War Dogs has a lot in common, too, with 2013’s Pain and Gain, the only good film Michael Bay has ever made.) The ostensible legality of Diveroli’s business doesn’t even pretend to disguise the profound illegalities of much of what he does: one of the most entertaining-slash-most horrifying sequences in the film involves these two guys literally running guns in a beat-up truck across the most dangerous parts of the Iraqi desert, contravening who knows how many local, US, and international laws, in order to fulfill a US Army contract to supply sidearms to the Baghdad police department. It may be wildly unethical and hugely immoral, but what an adventure!
Much of the movie is like this: appalling (deliberately so) and amusing (also deliberately so, but with a caustic moue) in equal measure. Diveroli is clearly a sociopath, and Hill — in his Moneyball, Wolf of Wall Street Oscar-nominated-actor mode — is deeply creepy, all empty eyes and hollow chortle and no-fucks-given for anyone but himself. Teller can often be unpleasantly smug onscreen, but there’s none of that here; oh, his Packouz is not a nice guy, but Teller manages to make us believe that the character genuinely sees himself as a decent person just trying to get by in the world. This will be explicitly echoed by a serious villain, another arms dealer, played with sinister ooze by Bradley Cooper (10 Cloverfield Lane, Joy) in a few scenes, when he unironically announces that he is not a bad man. Justifications and self-absolving abound: the ease with which these men excuse themselves is chilling and not at all inauthentic.
The weakest part of the film is the apparently purely fictional wife (Ana de Armas [Exposed], whose charms are wasted here) and new baby it gives Packouz, seemingly solely so that he can have someone to lie to again and again about what he’s doing at work. It’s the only element with which the movie falls into disappointing cliché, and surely Phillips and coscreenwriters Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic could have come up with some fresher way to flesh out Packouz as a character. Still, the movie slowly builds up an intriguing portrait of levels of narcissistic manipulation dribbling down from Diveroli to Packouz to all the rest of the mugs of the world they consider themselves above. By the time we’ve come to the conclusion that Diveroli and Packouz are a microcosm of the sociopaths who got the US into this whole big mess in the first place — devious genius Dick Cheney twisting puffed-up idiot George Bush to his own ends — Phillips makes that explicit connection in a sneaky visual way.
We laugh at it so we don’t cry.