‘War Dogs’ Is a Twisted Love Letter to Dick Cheney’s America
Jonah Hill rules in this classic about America’s military-industrial complex
by MATTHEW GAULT
The boys lowballed their bid and lost more than $50 million. The deal would still make them rich, supply the Afghan National Army with enough ammo to last 100 years and secure AEY’s place as a top Pentagon weapons dealer … but losing out on tens of millions in taxpayer dollars hurts.
In the hallway of the Rock Island Depot, the film’s Efraim Diveroli rests his head against the wall of a long, nondescript government hallway. His partner David Packouz reaches out to comfort him and Diveroli explodes. He lashes out, screams “fuck” at the top of his lungs and punches the wall.
The boys just landed the biggest deal they’ve ever had. It’s worth hundreds of millions, but Diveroli can’t stand to lose even a penny. He should be happy. Diveroli’s tantrum winds down and Packouz takes another shot at comforting him.
“For once the American taxpayer is getting a good deal on a defense contract,” he says.
“Fuck the American taxpayer,” Diveroli replies.
These are the War Dogs of defense contractor AEY — two twenty-somethings who built an empire selling guns and ammo to the Pentagon at cut-rate prices.
War Dogs is the new Todd Phillips directed film starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as two affable stoners who stumble their way through selling weapons to the U.S. government. It’s another classic in the recent run of excellent films about America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
American Sniper played with the gray areas of war and America’s hero-worship of a complicated man. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot explored the surreal world of journalists who uprooted their lives to cover the war. War Dogs is about money.
The movie opens with a monologue by Teller who explains the price point on common military items. He tells the audience that it costs $17,500 to outfit one American soldier. Stock footage of the early days of the Iraq invasion play across the screen as price tags flutter off the equipment. “War is an economy,” he says. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.”
The story that follows is dark and cynical. It’s the kind of story people trade on conspiracy forums when discussing how war is a racket. It’s unbelievable. But War Dogs is a true story, and the filmmakers hewed way closer to the facts than audiences might expect.
After the intro, the movie jumps to Miami in 2008. Packouz is in his early 20s, massaging wealthy South Beach clients to make a living. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend, a penchant for reefer and no direction in life.
At a funeral, he runs into his old middle school friend, Diveroli, who’s doing much better than Packouz. His old buddy drives a fancy car, shrugs off the loss of $300 during a drug deal gone wrong and carries an MP5K in his trunk.
Diveroli tells his old friend that he makes cash hand over fist using FedBizOpps to sell arms and ammo to the U.S. government. Even better, he needs someone to help him do the job and he wants to cut Packouz in.
The two spend the rest of the movie smoking weed, making bad decisions, snorting cocaine, dealing with death merchants in former Soviet republics and smoking weed. It’s fantastic and plays out like a Scorsese knockoff good enough to stand on its own.
It’s Goodfellas set in Cheney’s America.
Jonah Hill is War Dogs’ best feature and he nails the Diveroli character. For one, he makes him relatable. Almost everyone had a friend like him growing up.
Diveroli was the guy your mother didn’t want you hanging around with, but whose mother let you drink and smoke in the house because she thought it was safer than doing it in a park.
We’ve all got a Diveroli in our life. He’s charming, charismatic beyond reason and acts like life comes easy to him. But he’s the kind of friend who, when you really need him, isn’t ever around. He never answers the phone when you’re in trouble, and he makes excuses when you need to talk to someone.
Then one day, usually in your late 20s or early 30s, you realize this long time friend is a huge piece of shit. You catch him yelling at his girlfriend or casually lying to another friend during a phone call and you think, “If that’s how he treats his other friends then how is he really treating me?”
Hill crushes the performance as Diveroli, a greedy guy who puts on whatever show is enough to convince you to hand over your money. He’ll screw you over for a couple grand then make you feel like it was your fault, and through it all, he never loses his easy smile and strange, unsettling laugh.
It’s the kind of laugh he probably practiced in a mirror. He learned humor watching other people. It’s a survival mechanism for him, not a human pleasure. Because, at the end of the day, guys like Diveroli are all about cash and creature comforts. Other people are just mechanisms by which they acquire.
Director Todd Phillips is a strange talent. In a livestreamed Q & A after the showing I saw, he told the audience that he only makes movies about guys making bad decisions. That’s true, but so many of them have been below him.
Look, I laughed during The Hangover, Road Trip and Old School. I’m not a monster. But Phillips had done better films, and I always thought it strange that the man who gave the world an intimate and disgusting portrait of legendary shock rocker G.G. Allin got into the business of making safe dude-bro comedies.
War Dogs brings back the Phillips who brought a camera crew to record Allin as he self-destructed across America. Phillips is a director who turned in a documentary so reviled that HBO wouldn’t air it. War Dogs proves he still has something to say and has the talent to do it.
Phillips said he felt a kinship with Packouz and Diveroli, and he felt Washington was the true villain of the story. Which is another impressive piece of War Dogs — Phillips is able to indict the military-industrial complex by telling an entertaining story.
To be sure, Phillips streamlined the truth in War Dogs. He and his screenwriters merged real people together, conjured a few all on their own and cut a lot of supporting players. But the essential facts remain unchanged.
In the film, Packouz gets a wife to act as the film’s moral barometer — she doesn’t exist. Jordan seizes a shipment of Berettas and the boys drive it through Fallujah and into the Green Zone. Jordan did seize the weapons, but the chase through the desert is pure Hollywood.
More people helped with the Afghan deal, especially in the day-to-day operations on the ground in Albania. Bradley Cooper’s Henry Girard was a composite of several different characters.
But War Dogs is far more true than most films that claim to be based on a true story. FedBizOpps, the Craigslist of defense contracts, exists and still operates. The boys did try to repackage and sell Chinese 7.62-millimeter rifle rounds to the Pentagon, and their Albanian contacts got them in trouble for it.
Above all else, in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, two stoners barely out of high school became international arms dealers. “God bless Dick Cheney’s America,” Diveroli says halfway through the film.
He’s just beaten a couple of Hilux warriors in a chase through Fallujah and the American soldiers in Humvees who come to save him give him the bird. He cheers them on. He’s telling himself what he wants to hear, but he gets at the heart of something true.
Which is a Hell of a lot more than most movies about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars do.