In “War Dogs,” the new film from “The Hangover” director Todd Phillips, war profiteer David Packouz (Miles Teller) describes how arms dealers think. We see a soldier in battle, he sees $17,500, the cost of outfitting GI Joe with weapons and gear. “War is an economy,” he says. “Anyone who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.”
When we first meet Packouz he is a twenty-something massage therapist father-to-be barely making ends meet. His fortunes change when his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) recruits him to sell weapons to the U.S. military. Taking advantage of new rules regarding the allocation of military funds, they bid on small contracts, profiting on deals that aren’t big enough to attract the attention of huge players like Halliburton. “I live on crumbs like a rat,” says Diveroli, “and when you’re dealing with the Pentagon you can live on crumbs.”
It’s a lucrative business. Claiming “we’re not pro war, we’re pro money,” they soon have matching Miami condos, Porsches and an appetite to get a bigger slice of the “gold rush in Iraq.” Enter Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper), a legendary arms dealer rumoured to have sold the government the rope used to hang Saddam Hussein. With his shady connections—“This is the job,” Efraim says, “to do the business with people and places in the US can’t deal with directly.”—David and Efraim make the biggest deal of their lives, a $300 million contract to arm the Afghan Military. It is smooth sailing until they realize they’re in over their heads and greed and hubris
Based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article “The Stoner Arms Dealers,” the main hurdle “War Dogs” faces is the obnoxious nature of its main characters. David and Efraim are, to varying degrees, are not likeable but luckily Teller and Hill make sure they are watchable.
Teller plays David as a guy caught up in the fast pace even though he’s in way over his head. Of the two bros, he’s the everyman, the character we’re meant to identify with and the actor makes us understand—but probably not agree with—his choices. He makes terrible decisions and it takes him too long to grasp the moral and legal repercussions of his actions (MILD SPOILER ALERT) but at least he eventually does.
Hill has a steeper mountain to climb. By definition the term ‘war dogs’ refers to “bottom feeders to make money off war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield,” and Efraim, a fast talking “Scarface” aficionado, lives up to the description. He is a self described “Ugly American,” a borderline sociopath for whom belligerence is a default setting. The unhinged nature of the character and Hill’s venal glee in playing up the worst in human nature keeps “War Dogs” interesting even when the filmmaking gets choppy.
“War Dogs” is an odd beast. It’s a star driven message movie that condemns the Pentagon procurement process while balancing elements of satire and intrigue. Films like “The Big Short” breathe the same air, but take deeper breaths. Phillips has made a film that entertains but remains a character study rather than a searing, insider’s look at the business of war.