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Film Review: The Pentagon Wars

Title: The Pentagon Wars

Director(s): Richard Benjamin

Screenwriter(s): Jamie Malanowski & Martyn Burke

Studio: HBO Released: 1998

Runtime: 1h 44m

Starring: Kelsey Grammer, Cary Elwes, Viola Davis, John C. McGinley, Tom Wright, Clifton Powell

Based on the book The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard by USAF Colonel James G. Burton, this is one of those comedy gems that was unfortunately released as a mere telemovie.

Nonetheless, as expected from HBO, the production in every respect is very good. And with a cast headed by Kelsey Grammer and Cary Elwes, one is in for a treat.

The Pentagon Wars

US Army General Partridge (Grammer) is in charge of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle project which he wants to push into production as soon as possible. USAF Colonel Burton (Elwes) is assigned by Congress, since he is somewhat an outsider, to oversee the testing on the project.

The story is basically Burton trying to conduct a proper live-fire test on the Bradley; that is, with the vehicle fully fueled and loaded, and using proper Soviet ammunition (or the equivalent thereof). Everyone involved knows the vehicle is a “death trap” and would fail such a test. Since careers are dependent on apparent project completions (rather than successful completions in the truest sense), it is no surprise that Partridge and his men Major Sayers (Wright) and Colonel Bock (McGinley) play the role of obstructionists.

The structure of the film can be described as a tug of war, that constant motivation-and-obstacle cycle commonly found in a comedy, in this case between Burton and “the system”. The satire touches on bureaucratic and legal maneuvers, the Cold War-era mentality, and engineering design and testing, amongst other things.

The montage that recalls the vehicle’s development history is a hilarious take on design project management. After 17 years and $14 billion, the so-called troop carrier has gone from carrying 11 men (excluding the driver) to an oversized scout and a “quasi-tank” that carries merely 6 men but is sufficiently armed “to take out half of DC”.

Although one can describe every character as almost stereotypical for a comedy, the performances are great. This type of comedy requires a certain degree of overacting and it is easy to push it too far, but the cast does a good job. Grammar, in particular, really pushes the envelope but he is just so good at it.

The slapstick approach combined with the mildly dark satire is effective, with the narrative deliberately presenting the events as a complete farce even if it didn’t exactly happen that way. Although it is not intended to be an in-depth exploration of the military-industrial complex and the so-called deep state, it certainly touches on both. If I have to nitpick, it would be that there could be even more biting satire.

That criticism notwithstanding, it is mostly a consistent and entertaining film which can be treated as a light comedy that nonetheless carries some serious messages.

"I’m a troop carrier, not a tank…" (HBO 1998)
"I’m a troop carrier, not a tank…" (HBO 1998)

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