Some Deep Thoughts on “War Dogs”

(originally published on Aug 31 2016 on Tabletmag.com: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/211964/some-deep-thoughts-on-war-dogs)

“People pay money to see others believe in themselves,” the rock musician Kim Gordon has said. More accurate to unpack the thought into two related ideas: first, that people pay money to see others engaged in the struggle to believe in themselves. (Whether it’s a rock star or an athlete, the possibility of failure is part of what draws us in.) And second, that people pay money to see others enjoying themselves—probably because the secret of how to do that becomes elusive after childhood.

This is part of Donald Trump’s popularity. He loves what he does, which is being in the public gaze. Even if that shouldn’t be the president’s main job description, and even from the perspective of a Trump hater, compared with Trump’s enjoyment of the spotlight, all of his competitors for the Republican nomination paled. People simply enjoy seeing him enjoy himself.

War Dogs shows work as fun, and as such, it’s much more subversive than director Todd Phillips’ earlier comedies, like Starsky & Hutch and the Hangover trilogy (none of which I’ve seen). War Dogs is about two 20-something losers who dream big, and what’s riveting is their struggle to believe in themselves, and their pleasure in what they do. (The book on which the movie was based actually features three, not two, main characters.) It’s a feel-good movie for defiant people and outsiders. Yes, it’s about selling weapons, but more about the selling than the weapons, and more still about work in general—a topic perennially underserved by novelists, but given more of its due by TV and movies, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott recently noted. And as many people know, even the most mundane, unglamorous businesses can be absolutely gripping and full of drama, when they’re yours and there’s a chance to hit big. Think 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross (based on the David Mamet play) or David Russell’s fine 2015 movie Joy, about a woman whose mission in life was to invent a better mop. Or, for that matter, The Social Network.

Silicon Valley is all about what you do for fun becoming what makes you a fortune; that’s why it’s subversive—mainstream American culture still separates fun and fortune, weekday and weekend. I happened to see War Dogs for the first time on a Friday at 8 p.m., and on the way to the theater I was thinking how much I hate the phrase “have a good weekend!”—a phrase I associate with people doing work they don’t like, living for the Saturday-Sunday respite, and thinking everyone else lives like that too. Whereas I believe the goal in life is to find something you want to do seven days a week, whether it’s trade stocks or write poetry or raise kids or grow organic vegetables. Or be an arms dealer. Something that pleases and drives you so much that you don’t need or want time off.

And Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) the literally oversize protagonist of War Dogs, spends seven days a week selling weapons because it’s what he was born to do; his borderline sociopathy makes him a great salesman and he loves the details of the arms trade, the opportunity for hustling, and the guns themselves. He’s also scabrously un-PC in a way that also calls Trump to mind; he tells a translator to “say that in gibberish” and shoves past the crowd at Amman’s airport saying he’s American, he has to go first. His handsome but bland Jewish grade-school buddy, David Packouz (Miles Teller), with fewer obvious business skills and no love of guns, comes along for the ride. It beats his other job, giving massages (we see him with an older male client who “accidentally” drops his ass-covering towel to the floor).

As we’ll learn, Efraim is a shadow of a human being, without the ability to connect to others through friendship, love, or family. Yet he’s also charismatic because he is someone who loves how he spends his time. We’re supposed to identify with David, an attractive nebbish in a pink polo shirt carting a massage table around, but we’re mesmerized by Efraim, loud, crude and one-dimensional though he is.

Efraim and David spend almost all their waking hours in an office that’s basically a desk and a Scarface poster, staring at a U.S. government defense-procurement website and trying to figure out a way for their tiny firm, AEY Inc., to fulfill the contracts too small for established businesses to want to bid on. The movie makes it look like enormous fun. Because their business day begins again at midnight Miami time, morning in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the boundaries of work and play are diffuse. Because of this, and because these guys are in their 20s, there’s a lot of weed smoked and, eventually, coke snorted. It’s not so different from The Social Network, except that Mark Zuckerberg was creating something, and Efraim is just a middleman between arms buyers and sellers.

But the biggest difference between these guys and Silicon Valley is in style. The dudes are Jewish, just like Zuckerberg, but they’re from an insular, probably lower-middle-class Jewish background, while Zuckerberg went to Exeter and spent a couple of years at Harvard. (It seems Diveroli and Packouz are Sephardic.) They could just as well be Italian- or Irish-Americans—anyone who grew up in a tight-knit ethnic enclave, who got seed capital from a guy with a chain of dry cleaners (in real life, apparently, the financier was a Mormon in Utah) not a venture capitalist. Efraim has more in common with Melanie Griffith’s working-class striver from 1988’s Working Girl than with the privileged wonks of The Social Network; he was kicked out of high school after ninth grade and was just 18 when he started AEY. (The movie has them the same age, early 20, but David is really four years older.)

Of course, Efraim isn’t meant to be a role model. He’s open about his use of prostitutes; in fact, he’s unable to imagine any other kind of relationship with a woman. When he sees a girl he likes in a nightclub, he offers her $1,000 to blow him in his car, saying, “Why don’t we pretend we’ve had the three dates.” (Her boyfriend saunters by and decks him.) There are signs early on that Efraim’s also unable to be the “best friend” to David that he claims.

The two men get a huge, historic ammunition contract—but they make a sloppy mistake, and their comeuppance is only a matter of time. And as the business expands, Efraim spends more time doing cocaine and becomes suspicious and mean. We sense his unraveling in a scene of a trainee orientation. At the end of his spiel, Efraim asks if the trainees have any questions. “What does AEY stand for?” one guy asks. Efraim says, “It doesn’t stand for anything. Like IBM. Does IBM stand for anything?” The trainee says, “Well, actually it does. It stands for International Business Machines.” And Efraim shouts at him, “Get the fuck out of my office!” Then, “Anyone else have a question?” Silence. That bullying moment is, in fact, pure Trump. And you know then that Efraim is killing his newborn company.

Efraim and David get to the point where their work has an effect on the fate of nations. But Efraim is brought down because he becomes a pig. You could say it’s one of the things people do when they become addicted to coke, but you could also say people who want to punish themselves in certain ways use coke to do that. There’s a sadness deep in Efraim, beneath the hustle and the manic joy. The second time I saw the movie, I realized that part of Jonah Hill’s terrific performance is giving Efraim a peculiar laugh that sounds like sobbing. His bravado is a defense against depression.

How about David? There’s the obligatory scene where Packouz comes to his estranged baby mama, Iz, repentant, saying he’ll go back to doing massages, and she says she was always OK with that. Iz (a thankless role played by Ana de Armas) is from a modest Hispanic immigrant background. At the end of the movie, David’s back to schlepping that massage table around. Is Todd Phillips telling us that this is all life has to offer him?

A surprise ending suggests “no.” Because, of course, Todd Phillips’ heart isn’t with the normal, mediocre life. How could it be? What kind of wildly successful comedy director lives that way? War Dogs doesn’t believe that it’s equally good to decide the fate of nations or to give massages, and why shouldn’t we agree? Why do the same old shit for 40 years and then go nameless to your grave?

War Dogs doesn’t offer any easy answers; the potential happy ending for David comes with moral ambiguity. Everything costs something. But the movie forces us to ask: Why not try for the big time, whatever that means to you?

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