War Dogs movie review: The human cost of high-tech war
At The Movies
* * * (B)
Directed By Todd Phillips
Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Steve Lantz, Gregg Weiner, Ana de Armas, JB Blanc
Warner Bros., Rated R, Comedy,114 minutes
An astounding take-away from “War Dogs” depicts several soldiers outfitted for battle. Arrows and price tags reveal that between the helmet, night goggles, gas mask, radio, bullet-proof vests, boots, guns, GPS and ammo, in 2005 putting “boots on the ground” started at $17,500 per soldier.
Enter Efraim Diveroli, a high school dropout with lots of business acumen. Shipped off to Los Angeles at age 15 to work with his uncle, Efraim was introduced to the big bucks available for government contract fulfillers.
By 19, with the Iraq war well underway, Efraim was already a millionaire thanks to new regulations encouraging small businesses to bid on military contracts.
From the couch of his 1-bedroom apartment, Efraim combed through endless Internet pages detailing military needs, and began bidding on and winning small contracts for items he could easily procure.
Nine months and dozens of contracts later, Efraim returned to his hometown of Miami where he explained to 23-year-old friend David Packouz, “there are millions to be made on the crumbs ignored by large contractors.” Although both he and David claimed to be against the war, they were very much pro money.
With David’s help, and the financial backing from another of Efraim’s wealthy uncles, the duo set their sights on larger, more lucrative contracts, eventually winning a $300 million deal by low-balling the competition.
This true story, adapted from a 2011 “Rolling Stone” article penned by Guy Lawson (who later wrote a book entitled, “Arms and the Dudes”), is the sort of “stranger than truth” fodder that even this film lacks the courage to lay bare.
Efraim, a business genius, but emotionally immature, is played by Jonah Hill, who gives the character a “go,” but is 100 pounds heavier and looks 10 years older than his real life counterpart.
When Hill throws a tantrum, he just seems silly. Portraying 23-year-old Packouz, Miles Teller (29) is a closer match, but he too appears older and fails to convey a young man’s reckless demeanor and body language.
Aside from their youth, Lawson was fascinated by the gun-dealing pair’s penchant for smoking weed and snorting coke as they somehow managed to identify which contracts they could win and make the right global contacts to fulfill the requirements.
Rather than work with legitimate companies, Efraim tapped into the “grey market,” of Eastern European stockpiles accumulated during WWII, now gathering dust in unlikely places.
And where does an aspiring weapons dealer meet his sources? For starters, the annual weapons convention in Las Vegas. It was here that Efraim and Packouz were sought out by the notorious Henry Girard, wonderfully underplayed by Bradley Cooper who gets the spooky character just right.
Though Girard was banned from bidding on government contracts himself, there was no rule banning him from supplying government contractors. Girard’s value lay in his exclusive agreement with Albania, where he could cheaply procure the 100 million AKC rounds comprising the contract’s centerpiece.
Seeking out the comedy prompted by these events comes naturally when, on more than one occasion Efraim and David are obliged to fly to some frightening countries, where they work with underworld types, in order to fulfill their orders.
The results are both perilous and humorous. Efraim’s belief in his own omnipotence constitutes a young man’s advantage in pulling off the seemingly impossible.
Oddly, the film, which was made without Efraim’s permission (and who claims he is suing the filmmakers for “misappropriating my life”), does a much better job capturing Efraim’s mindset than David’s, who was sufficiently aware of the dangers to repeatedly lie to his girlfriend, and the mother of his new baby girl.
The film is knowledgeable and sympathetic regarding David’s domestic challenges, going out of its way to paint David as a victim while saddling Efraim with the responsibility for defrauding the government on several occasions.
Efraim claimed that in the interest of expediency, the U.S. Government preferred to overlook his company’s deficiencies. This claim is supported when the committee in charge of clearing Efraim’s company, AEY, accepts his phoney books at face value in order to award him the $300 million dollar contract because his was the cheapest bid.
When Efraim’s attempt to cheat someone out of a little money causes AEY’s fraudulence to be uncovered, we soon realize that his greed, rather than his fraudulent actions, brought him down.
There’s a lot to be learned from this film about the nature of business, which in many regards, is the study of human behavior and how to avoid its worst pitfalls.
“War Dogs” might have been a great film by being a more honest one, but like so many Hollywood movies, it believes we need someone to like, and overreaches in an effort to make David be that someone.
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