The Cost(Co) of conflict: War, Inc. **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 21, 2008)

In star/producer/co-writer John Cusack’s pet project War, Inc., one character delivers a throwaway line that must surely have been the pitch for the film: “This is like Strangelove in the desert.” Indeed, one senses the ghosts of savage satires past, like Dr. Strangelove, The President’s Analyst, Network and Winter Kills in this topical send-up of BushCo and the post-9/11 ‘murcan zeitgeist. Unfortunately, one also senses a lack of cohesion in an initially smart script that soon loses focus and goes tumbling ass over teakettle into broad farce, wildly firing its barbs in too many directions at the same time.

Cusack’s character is Brand Hauser, a hot-sauce chugging hit man with a tortured past who seems to be an amalgam of Jason Bourne, Captain Willard and, um, Chuck Barris. He has been dispatched to “Turaqistan” (ahem), a war-torn Middle Eastern hot spot ripe for reconstruction and corporate exploitation. He is there to terminate the country’s Oil Minister (Lyubomir Neikov) with extreme prejudice. The minister is a spanner in the works for the corporate machinations of Hauser’s employer, a former Vice-President turned CEO (Dan Ackroyd, doing a credible quacking Cheney) who now heads Tamerlane (a cross between Halliburton and Blackwater).

The prospect of spearheading the “first completely out-sourced war” appears to make the ex-Veep harder than Chinese arithmetic. In order to get close to his target, Hauser poses as the event coordinator of a Tamerlane-sponsored trade fair being held in the capital city’s “green zone”. Hauser’s front soon proves to be the tougher gig, as he juggles the demands of three women: his fellow operative posing as his P.A. (Joan Cusack), a tenacious lefty journalist (Marisa Tomei) and a petulant pop diva named Yonica Babyyeah (Hilary Duff). Hilarity ensues.

Reportedly, the filmmakers have coyly denied that this is an unofficial sequel to Grosse Pointe Blank, but obvious comparisons abound, particularly in just about every scene that the Cusack siblings share; it feels at the very least to be a nod and a wink to the roles they played in that movie. Admittedly, it is great fun watching those two working together again, but it only serves as a momentary distraction from the film’s uneven tone.

Director Joshua Seftel does his best to hold it together, and manages to give the film a slick look that belies a low budget. Cusack was inspired to tackle the project after reading an article written by Canadian journalist/activist Naomi Klein back in 2004 (Tomei’s character is, I would assume, based on Klein). He enlisted the help of two talented co-writers, Bullworth scripter Jeremy Pisker and satirist Mark Leyner. However, this may be a case of “too many cooks” and could explain the screenplay’s scattershot approach.

I don’t mind an occasional brushstroke of symbolism in a film, but there are one too many instances in War, Inc. where it’s caked on with a trowel. One set piece in particular, a flashback scene showing Hauser in a violent, gladiatorial confrontation with his former boss (an even hammier than usual Ben Kingsley) takes place in a dilapidated theme park that looks to have been a replica of ancient Rome. It’s the end of the world as we know it!

I think the malady here is similar to that which plagued Lions for Lambs: an overdose of intent. Redford’s film came on too somber and preachy, even for the choir. War, Inc. swings to the opposite extreme; it’s too manic and overeager to beat us over the head with what we already know: Iraq is a shameful mess, Bush and his cronies have completely blurred the line between war and commerce, and the majority of the American public is too busy watching the sun rise and set over Britney’s thighs to really notice. I’m afraid that War, Inc. is another case of “I really wanted to like this, but…”

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