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Sunday, August 21, 2016
War Dogs is based on a tale so incredible that star Miles Teller is prompted to reach for that hoariest of cliches: "Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction." So there's war in the title, but in fairness to Phillips, it is true that the killing takes place outside the frame, as an indirect result of events on screen.
Does a film about war need to do more than entertain?
"I don't know. We didn't make a war movie," director Todd Phillips says. "There have been a lot of movies about war and a lot of movies about soldiers. This is not one of them."
Teller plays David Packouz, a 25-year-old Jewish kid from Miami Beach recruited into the arms trade by his even younger friend, Efraim Diveroli. When their two-man company, AEY Inc, scores a $300 million contract with the US government to arm the Afghan military, they must scramble to supply millions of rocket-propelled grenades and more than a hundred million rounds of AK-47 ammunition. This really happened.
Phillips bought the rights to Guy Lawson's Rolling Stone story about the two would-be lords of war soon after it was published in 2011 (a book followed four years later). Actor Jonah Hill also read the article and tried to buy it, intending to direct. "I was late to the party," he says. He settled for playing Diveroli, a manipulative charmer with boundless ambition and a helium balloon laugh.
When they're not scouring the US government's procurement database for contracts to bid on, or calling arms suppliers in eastern Europe in search of ancient caches of Soviet bullets, Packouz and Diveroli are getting high, clubbing, and cruising the streets of Miami in their matching Porsches. Two kids so far out of their depth that they can't see bottom is a great comic set-up, but it's also, this being a true story, incredibly alarming.
"This book takes on the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, the State Department, The New York Times," says Lawson, an investigative reporter who learned his craft from legendary Australian newsman Murray Sayle. "I basically said 'f--- you' to everybody that I could find, and then you hope that it has an impact, and in this age it very often doesn't, so it's gratifying to have a movie that does even some piece of that."
In the opening minutes of War Dogs, it briefly appears that the movie will do more than "some piece" of the article's work exposing the farcical, mind-blowingly expensive and inefficient way that the US military buys its weapons. Soldiers patrolling in Iraq are festooned with price tags for the gun, the helmet, the kevlar vest, the uniform: everything but the human being inside.
"It kind of treads there, I suppose," Phillips says. "That beginning, we're just setting up the idea of war as an economy. A lot of people don't realise the amount of money that is at stake, and that sometimes wars are waged because of that."
"I don't think this film takes a political stance," Teller says. "We acknowledge the war, absolutely, but I don't think we glorify it." The only blood spilled is down the front of Pakouz's shirt, the result of a busted nose.
The Afghan arms contract was offered for tender at the US government's procurement website. The 44-page document, A Solicitation for Nonstandard Ammunition, effectively invited the winning bidder to launder government money, buying weapons of shady provenance that the US military couldn't buy itself. The ammunition could be any age, and from anywhere but China, as long as it worked.
AEY was able to close the deal thanks to a policy adopted by the George W. Bush administration (in response to too many no bid contracts going to vice-president Dick Cheney's old friends at Halliburton) mandating that a percentage of US military supply contracts must be awarded to independent businesses. Diveroli and Packouz also undercut more established rivals such as Lockheed, BAE Systems and General Dynamics by $50 million.
"My response to the article was 'man,' " Teller says. "I couldn't believe that these guys, at that age, had the vision or foresight to be able to do all of that. Me and my friends did some hustles to try and make some extra money but it was never on that kind of scale."
In a pivotal scene, Packouz is charged with overseeing a packing operation in Albania, bagging and boxing tens of millions of Chinese bullets to obscure where they come from.
"I couldn't believe it was a real story," Phillips says. "The more we unwound it, it just became more and more of a film."
The filmmakers do take some dramatic licence. A contract to supply 10,000 Beretta pistols to the Iraqi army that AEY defaulted on becomes a hair-raising trip through the "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad. Swiss arms dealer Heinrich Thomet becomes David Gerard, an American played by Bradley Cooper. Packouz gets a love interest in the form of absurdly Bambi-cute Spanish actor Ana de Armas.
The biggest change in the journey from page to screen, though, is one of tone. Lawson wrings plenty of laughs from the story, describing how Packouz and Diveroli smoked a joint in the car park before their due diligence meeting with military supply chiefs, but the film amplifies the humour and skirts some of the more troubling implications of two stoners being put in charge of arming the Afghan military, as one might expect from the director of the Hangover series of films.
"I think this is a drama that has a lot of humour in it, because a) Efraim's such a flamboyant character and b) these two guys get themselves in so far over their heads that there's humour in it," Hill says. It's not a comedy but you're laughing at their circumstances."
I'd describe it as a romp, I tell Phillips. "A romp." He savours it for a few seconds. "I like that. It's OK. But it's a romp where you maybe learn something at the end, or you're exposed to something you didn't really know about."
Without wishing to give too much away, the caper did not end well for Diveroli and Packouz, but they did deliver $66 million of munitions to Afghanistan before their scheme came crashing down. There's no telling where it ended up.
"There's a good chance that today someone is firing a round of AK-47 ammunition, from a Taliban AK, at an Afghan soldier, with ammunition supplied by these dudes," Lawson says.
"This was not some exception to the rule. This was the rule. This was and is how procurement operates … It persists to this day in the exact same form, only now it's gone secret. In Syria, the procurement process is being done by people with top secret security clearances, so you can't even report on it anymore."
"I've had one person tell me it's way worse: there's more corruption, there's less oversight, there's more lost and stolen weaponry, there's no accountability."