War Dogs

Posted on August 18, 2016 at 5:51 pm

Copyright Warners 2016
Copyright Warners 2016

“What does AEY stand for?” a newly hired employee asks Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). “You mean morally?” No, he just wants to know what the initials represent, though the answer is the same: nothing. And, as it turns out, asking the question and correcting Efraim’s mistake get him fired. AEY “stands for” making money, no questions asked. That will be the basis for great success, until it is also the basis for catastrophe.

We this know right from the beginning, when we see Efraim’s partner David Packouz (Miles Teller) released from the trunk of a car and beaten up at gunpoint by some very evil-looking masked guys. In Albania. And then we go back in time to see how David, a college drop-out now on his seventh job, working as a massage therapist, and smoking a lot of weed, met up with Efraim, an old friend from middle school, and joined him at AEY, a company that sold equipment to the Pentagon.

It was 2008. The United States was fighting two wars and outsourcing pretty much everything. If it costs more than $17,000 to outfit each soldier, that means someone has to sell them all that gear. The Bush administration got into trouble for dealing exclusively with “Dick Cheney’s friends” and was under pressure to give some of that procurement business to small companies. And Efraim, a high school dropout, had mastered the art of constantly scrolling through the website that was essentially the government’s wish list and bidding on contracts so small they were beneath the notice of enormous government contractors who sell tanks and planes. “All the money is made between the lines,” Efraim says. He tells David that while big companies go for the pie, they can make plenty of money from the crumbs. David, bored and worried about money for his pregnant girlfriend, signs on.

At first it works. They make tons of money. But buying and selling guns puts them in contact with some untrustworthy and violent people. And a little bit of success makes them eligible to go beyond the crumbs. An international arms dealer who is barred from selling to the US because he is on a watch list (producer Bradley Cooper) offers them a deal too good to pass up on ammunition they can sell to the Pentagon at a huge mark-up. But Efraim and David are very good at the details when it comes to making the pitch; not very good at the details when it comes to delivering the product. This is a business school case study in failure of operations and execution. And in the failures of government procurement.

Director and co-screenwriter Todd Phillips is clearly trying to make the kind of shift from raunchy, slob comedies (“Old School,” “The Hangover”) to sharp, trenchant satire that Adam McKay did with “The Big Short.” And Jonah Hill, looking disturbingly puffy and pasty, clearly wants to play the Leo role instead of the Jonah Hill role in his own “Wolf of Wall Street.” Both get partway there. Hill clearly enjoys being the trigger-happy hotshot who can brashly invite a girl to skip ahead to the third date for $1000 instead of his usual role as either the dumb shlub or the smart shlub. Phillips does a good job in laying out the parameters of the story, making it clear how the window of opportunity opened for AEY and Efraim and David were in the right place at the right time. There are even chapter headings for each section, foreshadowing telling comments we will hear, from “God bless Dick Cheney’s America” to “That sounds illegal.”

He also lays out a classic Hollywood movie structure: set-up, early triumph, hubris, wipeout. There are some fine moments, like the surreal use of identical actors (or CGI) as the Pentagon officials who sign off on the deal. But Phillips’ control of tone and character is uncertain and he relies too much on songs (“Fortunate Son,” “Time in a Bottle”) to carry the story.

Parents should know that this film includes wartime and crime-related peril and violence including automatic weapons, war profiteering, constant very strong language, crude and explicit sexual references, non-explicit situations, drinking, and drugs.

Family discussion: When and why did David and Efraim make different choices? What was their biggest mistake? Were they appropriately punished?

If you like this, try: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

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Based on a true story War
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