DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new film comedy "War Dogs" takes a new angle on America's wars in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Directed by Todd Phillips, who's best known for "The Hangover," it stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as two unlikely arms dealers. Our critic at large John Powers says the movie's at its best when the characters are at their worst.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: War may be hell, but it can be heaven for business. That's why for as long as there have been wars, there have always been people eager to make money from them. What makes America special is that the profits to be made are astronomical. This reality forms the backdrop of Todd Phillips' jauntily enjoyable new comedy "War Dogs." Just the latest movie to take it for granted, along with the majority of Americans, that our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been a real mess. Freely adapted from a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson, it tells the basically true story of two 20-something Miami dudes who become international arms dealers. The year is 2005, and "Whiplash's" Miles Teller is David Packouz, a decent-enough guy with a nice girlfriend, Iz, played by Ana de Armas and a part-time job as a massage therapist. David is going nowhere until he bumps into his old Hebrew school buddy Efraim Diveroli. That's Jonah Hill, a sleazy out-of-control braggart who's making big money selling weapons. How's that possible? Well, after the Bush administration was accused of cronyism in supplying American troops, notably in its no-bid contracts with Vice President Cheney's old company Halliburton, the Defense Department opened up the bidding process to everyone. In today's increasingly privatized military, there was so much money being spent in so many directions that the small fry could make a fortune picking up the crumbs too small for the sharks.
POWERS: That's just what Efraim does, and he invites his gullible friend to join him. Although David has to lie about his job to his anti-war girlfriend, he signs on, seduced by Efraim's drugs, manic energy and the chance to score big. At first, their transactions are perfectly legal. But the two soon become involved in ever bigger and dodgier ventures, delivering a truckload of pistols to U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and going into business with Bradley Cooper's character, a major-league arms dealer on the U.S. terrorist watch list, who can provide Soviet-made ammo located in Albania that they can then ship to Afghanistan, a deal worth millions. Here, Efraim tries to convince the reluctant David that this is the smart move.
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JONAH HILL: (As Efraim Diveroli) We're talking exclusive access to a stockpile of Soviet Bloc non-standard weapons and ammo. That's going to win this deal for us.
MILES TELLER: (As David Packouz) He's on a terrorist watch list.
HILL: (As Efraim Diveroli) Whatever, people end up on that list for bringing scissors onto an airplane.
TELLER: (As David Packouz) That's not why he's on the list.
HILL: (As Efraim Diveroli) Look, the Pentagon wants 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo in the middle of a worldwide shortage. Where do you think they think that's going to come from? A bunch of shady [expletive] like that guy. This is the job, to do business with the people in places the U.S. government can't do business with directly. It's as simple as that.
POWERS: Needless to say, it isn't as simple as that. Things start to go very wrong. In fact, "War Dogs" belongs to the mini tradition of rise-and-fall stories launched by "Goodfellas," deepened by "Boogie Nights" and jocularized by "The Wolf Of Wall Street." It eventually turns into a morality tale about making deals with the devil, then lying to oneself and to others about it. Of course, the problem with such tales is that the immoral rise is usually more fun to watch than the day of reckoning. Although this is easily Phillips' most ambitious film - yes, even more ambitious than "The Hangover Part III" - he remains a specialist in lavishness. "War Dogs" comes most alive when David and Efraim are gleefully scrolling down lists of potential contracts, smuggling guns into Iraq from Jordan with a 50/50 chance of being killed or getting high, in every sense, from their profits. The movie's less successful with quieter, more serious matters. While it's not surprising that de Armas' roll is thankless, Phillips has never demonstrated any discernible interest in women as human beings, David himself has surprisingly little to do. Teller is a terrific young actor, yet his character's so generic that his moral qualms get eclipsed by Hill's movie star performance. It's like watching Jeb Bush in those debates with Donald Trump. Indeed with his puffed-up chin, "Scarface" poster and hip hop swagger, he loves firing Uzis. The psychopathic Efraim dominates the screen with his dark brio, like some particularly poisonous frog you might see in a National Geographic special. But if Hill is the most vivid thing about "War Dogs," the most important is what it actually shows about how America spends its money and makes its wars. The notion that hustlers like Efraim and David might actually be supplying our troops with bullets recycled from Eastern Europe may sound like something from an agitprop black comedy by some Hollywood liberal, yet it actually happened. It turns out that life isn't merely stranger than fiction. It's also more satirical.
DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and Vogue.com. On Monday's show, fixing our aging, unstable electric grid.
GRETCHEN BAKKE: The greatest threat to the electric grid right now in the U.S. is actually foliage.
DAVIES: That is trees and vines that can knock wires out of commission and contribute to blackouts. We talk with Gretchen Bakke, author of "The Grid," who says solutions are as much about financial relationships, political interests and cultural patterns as they are about technology. Hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.