New York — Brad Pitt and Gen. Stanley McChrystal — the inspiration to Pitt's four-star Afghanistan commander in the upcoming Netflix war satire "War Machine "— would seem to be worlds apart.
One, an affable member of Hollywood's elite; the other a hard-charging lifetime military man. But Pitt found one connection with his character: a swollen ego, and the damage done.
"Hubris is a trap and it's the trap of every great nation that has been number one for too long. You start believing your own stink," Pitt says. "Anytime I've gotten in trouble, it's because of my own hubris."
Pitt, at the moment, may be particularly empathetic to such a drastic swing as the one that sank McChrystal via an infamous Rolling Stone profile . Pitt is now, for the first time since Angelina Jolie Pitt filed for divorce from him last September, stepping back into the limelight. He hasn't been timid. In his first post-separation interview, to GQ , Pitt was unusually candid, speaking frankly about his struggles with alcohol and the pains of dividing their family.
Pitt was similarly forthright in a wide-ranging interview last week with The Associated Press. He called directly — "Hey man, it's Brad" — and over the course of half an hour, discussed his present state of mind, his current attitude about acting and his alarm at the possibility of expanding the war in Afghanistan. Why the openness?
"I've got no secrets. I've got nothing to hide," said Pitt. "We're human and I find the human condition very interesting. If we're not talking about it, then we're not getting better."
It's undoubtedly a fraught period of transition for the 53-year-old actor. He said he's spending his time now "keeping the ship afloat" and "figuring out the new configuration of our family." ''Kids are everything," he said, of their six children. "Kids are your life. They're taking all the focus, as they should anyway."
He's getting through it, he assured. "I'm not suicidal or something," Pitt said, laughing. "There's still much beauty in the world and a lot of love. And a lot of love to be given. It's all right. It's just life."
The passion behind War Machine
Pitt was most keen to discuss War Machine and the strong passions behind it. The film, written and directed by the Australian filmmaker David Michod (Animal Kingdom), is based on Michael Hastings' 2012 book The Operators, which chronicled McChrystal's tumultuous and short-lived stewardship of the war in Afghanistan.
War Machine, which debuts on Netflix 26 May, takes a slightly fictionalised approach. Pitt's character is named Gen. Glen McMahon, but the events and personalities covered correspond accurately with McChrystal's downfall. The switch, made after the project was announced, saved the film from some potentially thorny legal issues.
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"We had no interest in impugning General McChrystal or any of his guys," said Pitt. "For me, the problem is more systematic."
"The impetus for me was a visit to Walter Reed," added Pitt, who visited the military medical centre in 2014 . "Those young men and women — who are absolutely heroic in a very harrowing situation — their lives are forever changed and so are their families. It just really made me question who is spending this currency of dedication. Who's writing the check? Who's making the order?"
Particularly galling to Pitt was the request last week by advisers to President Donald Trump and military officials for several thousand more American troops in Afghanistan, a war that has already spanned more than 15 years. It's time to rethink what "winning" means, he says.
"Nothing that we've ever done has said that more troops are going to do anything but cause any more damage, more loss of life and limb," said Pitt. "We talk a lot about supporting our troops but I think supporting our troops is much more than giving them money and a pat on the back. I think it's being responsible to how we use that ultimate dedication."
Trump's top advisers have said the president has not made any final decision about adding more troops in Afghanistan.
'Summoned the spirit of war comedies'
In War Machine, Michod summons some of the spirit of war comedies like Catch 22 and M-A-S-H. The film captures an American military driven by politics, illusions and personal aspirations. Pitt's general, with a deeper, gruffer voice than McChrystal's, comes charging into Afghanistan with outlandish delusions of grandeur and departs amid self-inflicted scandal.
"We were tapping into a melding of war and comedy — two things that used to co-exist quite conformably, but in this day and age don't," said Michod. "It's very interesting to see how the two coexist in the public sphere given how strangely earnest all conversation about war has gotten in a possibly warped way. But there's something almost truer in that kind of great comedy treatment of decades past than the nature of the discussion that goes on today."
Michod grants it's an approach that makes for some wild swings of tone in War Machine, but he says a mix of absurdity and tragedy is ultimately more realistic.
"At core, the thing to me that's most powerful about War Machine and what made it feel important to me was that it was about the way personalities can have an incredibly powerful and often a powerfully damaged ripple effect across the world," said Michod. "The movie is called War Machine, but that machine is made up of individuals, individuals with their own strengths and ambitions."
Pitt said he discussed the film with McChrystal. "I feel for him," said the actor. "He's a product of us. He's us." McChrystal, who retired from the Army shortly after resigning command, has since launched a management consulting firm and penned a memoir. He declined to comment for this article.
Little about War Machine is typical for a Hollywood production. It would have never gotten made, Pitt said, without Netflix. The streaming service bankrolled the film for $60m, making it one of Netflix's most ambitious projects yet.
"The degree of difficulty on this one was ten," said Pitt, "which is what makes it worth it for me to go get in front of the camera now."
Through his production company Plan B, Pitt has become a remarkably successful producer. He was behind two of the last three best-picture winners (Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave) as well as other acclaimed releases like James Gray's The Lost City of Z. At times, Pitt — though he's prepping numerous projects, including a possible World War Z sequel — sounded almost as though his movie star days are behind him.
"I feel myself as I'm older gravitating more to the producing side than being in front of the camera," said Pitt. "It's a big commitment, a film, and it does take you away from your family. I just have to balance that. It's not less important, itself, it's just not as important as family. ('War Machine') I loved because it's after something and we don't know where we're going to end up. It's a delicate tightrope to walk."