War Dogs is based on a true story. Back in 2005, David Packouz (Miles Teller) was a massage therapist looking to get rich by selling bedsheets wholesale to retirement communities. Then he runs into his old friend Efraim (Jonah Hill), who is running a business that takes bids on government defense contracts. He brings David into his operation, which initially is just trying to pick up the crumbs of a massively flawed system. But the two get more ambitious, and the two are drawn into bigger contracts that require them to take bigger risks for the promise of greater reward.
The Rolling Stone article from which this movie is based isn’t very hard to find online. It paints a pretty different picture of who these two guys are and what actually happened between them. The film reshapes their narrative into something far simpler. David is presented as essentially a good guy caught up in the mad workings of his former best friend. The film turns him into a family man, attaching a wife character that seems to only show up to complain about the stuff that he’s doing. It turns Efraim into an outright villain, a devil figure leading David down dark paths while plotting to betray him eventually.
Presumably, these changes were made to make the movie more entertaining. And to an extent, it works. It’s fun most of the time, the movie getting a lot out of just sending these two hapless Americans into the strange situations that necessarily come with becoming international arms dealers. They travel through a warzone to deliver a shipment of guns. They make deals with really dangerous people. They meet with bigwigs in the government who are impressed with the kind of business they want to do. The film wrings easy humor out of the simple fact that these two guys are completely out of their depth.
Lurking just beneath the surface is the idea that there is something greater at play; that it is a broken system that has allowed such absurdity to take place. But the film oversimplifies the story a bit too much to really make that point. It becomes too much about the relationship between the two main characters, the film investing a lot in their inevitable rift. With clear good guys and bad guys, the film fails to capture the rampant complicity that makes something as absurd as this bidding system work.
Director Todd Phillips is best known nowadays for The Hangover and its sequels. As much as this film tries to tackle a serious, real subject, it doesn’t actually stray very far from his most famous success. It’s still essentially a story of white male friends getting into trouble, and jumping into one absurd situation after another. Phillips doesn’t quite have the sophistication to pull off the satire, but he is able to get laughs. Miles Teller is kind of lifeless in the lead role, though he may have just been written that way. Jonah Hill gets the fun role, and he upstages his co-star in practically every scene.
War Dogs is fun enough, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is just oversimplifying things at every turn. The movie is transparent in this way. It burdens this story with so many typical Hollywood movie elements that it becomes obvious that this isn’t really a true story anymore, even if one hasn’t read the article. And this is a problem for a film that has ambitions beyond just being another comedy. This film especially suffers in light of something like The Big Short, which was more successful in wringing comedy out of ostensibly arcane and difficult to understand real events. This film just doesn’t try as hard.