114 min. | R
Its original title, Arms and the Dudes, made it sound like a stoner comedy about bumbling weapons dealers. It’s not that at all. Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips (writer-director of all three Hangover flicks), War Dogs is about young arms dealers who frequently partake in illegal substances. It’s a comedy of the darkest, bleakest kind, satirical in the sense that the whole world has become a self parody, where you often can’t tell whether a news headline is from The New York Times or The Onion.
Based on a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson, the movie is a lot like 2005’s Lord of War, about a small-time fictional freelance arms dealer. While we were all enjoying that movie at cinemas in 2005, the real-life events depicted here were kicking off.
The Iraq and Afghanistan war “gold rush” for defense contractors hit a roadblock when it was revealed that Bush administration cronies were being awarded sweet, no-bid contracts. To make the process more open, the US Federal government opened a public website, FedBizOpps.gov, an “eBay for military contracts,” as it’s called here.
That’s when 20-something David Packouz (Miles Teller) runs into his old school friend, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who’s making a killing on contracts through this site with jobs too small for defense corps to pay any attention to but ideal for a hustler like Diveroli. “I live on crumbs like a rat,” Diveroli says proudly. But those crumbs are worth millions. He invites Packouz to work for him, and they make lots of money together.
“God bless Dick Cheney’s America,” an onscreen intercard notes. The entire film drips with that sort of meta sarcasm, contrasting the rah-rah triumph of the American dream of entrepreneurism with the total lack of conscience.
The ostensible legality of Diveroli’s business doesn’t even pretend to disguise the profound illegalities of much of what he does: One of the most entertaining-horrifying sequences in the film involves these two guys running guns in a beat-up truck across the Iraqi desert, contravening who knows how many local, US and international laws, to fulfill a US Army contract to supply side arms to the Baghdad police.
Much of the movie is like that: appalling (deliberately so) and amusing. Diveroli is clearly a sociopath, and Hill expresses this with deeply creepy, empty eyes, and hollow chortles. Teller’s Packouz is not a nice guy, but Teller makes us believe that the character genuinely sees himself as a decent guy just trying to get by in the world. This will be explicitly echoed by a serious villain, another arms dealer played with sinister ooze by Bradley Cooper, who unironically announces that he is not a bad man.
The movie builds up an intriguing portrait of narcissistic manipulation dribbling down from Diveroli to all the rest of the world they consider themselves above.