Based on a Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson that later became a book called Arms and the Dudes, War Dogs is the real-life story of a couple of Florida stoners who saw a loophole, went for it and became temporarily rich as gunrunners, supplying weapons for U.S. troops. It’s an incredible story, but the fact that it’s true – well, mostly true – makes it all the more fascinating. That’s not to say that the film itself succeeds on all levels, but there’s no denying that the source material is something quite extraordinary.
In reality there were not two but three dudes. Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) was the driving force, David Packouz (Miles Teller) was the schoolyard friend who saw the potential for wealth and joined forces with Diveroli, while a third friend, pot-dealer Alex Podrizki became their guy in Albania. The subtitle to Lawson’s book was ‘How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History,’ but the film’s script streamlines things down to just two.
Told as a black comedy and narrated by Teller’s character, Packouz, the film opens with the trick more often used by television to pull audiences immediately in with the economy of action. It’s January 1, 2008, and young Packouz is taken out of a car’s trunk by a group of foreign looking bad guys in what appears to be the middle of a colorless, desolate nowhere. They slap him around, threaten him, then stick a gun to his head. How he got there, why he was zipped up in a body bag, and why the presumed bad guys kidnapped him is something the film will eventually explain until it circles back to that same moment. The payoff, once we get there, amounts to little and feels like a tease, but at least it gets you wondering about the guy’s fate, which was always the aim of that dramatic introduction. It just feels unnecessary.
The reason why the book is called Arms and the Dudes (which was also the film’s original title) is that the two leads conducted most of their business while high. They would begin the morning with a ‘wake and bake’ routine of getting stoned before anything else, then face the conflicts of the day. “Dude,” states Diveroli to his old friend he had known since junior high, “I think you should come work for me.”
The work revolved around Diveroli’s small company called A.E.Y. Inc. which looked for ways of exploiting a system allowing small businesses to make bids on U.S. Military contracts. Once best friend Packouz saw what could be made with what he assumed would be a minimum of risk, together the two guys developed ways of supplying arms overseas. The money was good, and it built, which only fueled their interest in doing more. It’s when they were handed a deal to arm the Afghan Military in a three hundred million dollar U.S. Government operation that things spiraled out of control.
Broken into sections titling an oncoming quote, as in God Bless Dick Cheney’s America, That Sounds Illegal and If I’d Wanted You Dead, You’d Already be Dead, director Todd Phillips, who also co-wrote the screenplay, uses a Scorsese style of quick, zippy edits, voice-over narration and a pop/rock soundtrack to propel things forward at an unstoppable, entertaining pace.
Packouz tells the story but it’s Diveroli’s character that comes across as the most well-rounded and interesting, and certainly the most threatening. Reprehensible and unpleasant in almost every way, Diveroli is a sociopath with allegiance to no one other than his own profit and survival. As Packouz observes and narrates, “He would find out what kind of person his client wanted him to be and he would become that person.” In the eyes of some, that’s perhaps the most extreme example of the perfect salesman, but it’s an approach that will ultimately work against him, as well as against Packouz.
How much is true and how much is condensed in order to make the tale simpler and more accessible in its telling is difficult to say. Both Teller and, particularly, Hill convince, and if you look up articles on the real characters, you’ll see that most of the events in the film really did occur; perhaps not quite as seen in the film, but the overall effect is relatively accurate.
The conclusion and the sentences handed down, as surprising as they are, are real, yet the film takes what feels like one unnecessary step further in a final scene involving a visit from a threatening and perpetually unshaven guy called Henry (Bradley Cooper) who happens to be on the government’s terrorist watch-list. What occurs at that meeting in a Miami hotel room would be unfair to say, particularly as it ends the story, but the moment and Henry’s offer to Teller’s Packouz comes across less as a real event and more of a convenient fantasy, a way of ending things on a fictional upbeat note when it shouldn’t require one. But as Hill’s sociopathic Diveroli asks, “When does telling the truth ever help anybody?”
MPAA Rating: R Length: 114 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)