I haven’t spent much time on so-called “TV movies” here, but with cable networks putting out entertainment that is equal to, or in many cases, better than a lot of the crap coming out of Hollywood studios these days, “cable” films have evolved to become great and often spectacular. One early effort that is noteworthy is “The Pentagon Wars” starring Kelsey Grammer from 1998. It’s an HBO production and while not a great example of outstanding cinematography and special effects, it has a nice cast that does a wonderful job. It’s very much worth watching if you can find it.
(1998; 104 minutes; rated R – but nowhere near deserving of the rating; directed by Richard Benjamin and starring Kelsey Grammer, Cary Elwes and Viola Davis)
THE BUREAUCRACY OF WAR BEGATS BUREAUCRACY
(NOTE: I expanded this review with links and some additional comments on Oct. 20, 2015. I expanded it again with additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on Dec. 15, 2018.)
I cannot say just how historically accurate the HBO film “The Pentagon Wars” is to the real-life development of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle by the Pentagon (it’s based on a book), but the film is fun to watch and headliners Kelsey Grammer and Cary Elwes each do a wonderful turn. Besides, you know the military lied about its incompetence with the project and so how far off base can this movie treatment be?
My praise for the movie is not to say that “The Pentagon Wars” doesn’t have flaws. Some of its pacing is painfully slow where it could have been more efficient (say, the opening monologue); the special effects – no CGI when this one was made; and the writing could have been tighter. But where other films all too easily fall flat, “The Pentagon Wars” shows its strength by rising above its challenges through the hard work of the actors.
The plot is about the development of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. It started out as simply a troop carrier and evolved over more than a dozen years to become a multi-purpose armored vehicle that never quite measured up to each of its missions and featured a horrid cost overrun that is more of a Pentagon hallmark than efficiency and intelligence will ever be. You know, kind of like your average corporation in the private sector.
Here’s the plot …
Elwes plays U.S. Air Force “Col. James Burton” and he is assigned as the impartial intra-service judge of the Bradley’s construction and effectiveness. Grammer as the Army’s “Gen. Partridge” is the person responsible for getting it into production. The two clash nearly from the start as Elwes is flummoxed, astounded, frustrated and ultimately forced to retire with his pyrrhic victory in exposing the Pentagon’s cover-up of incompetence, flat-out lying to Congress (and hence to the public) and a miserable waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
- Elwes is perfectly cast here with his boyish good looks and positive, friendly and outgoing demeanor. He does especially well with a simple nuance – say a look or just his tone of voice. Elwes also projects smart and tough and does a solid job with the various emotions needed in this role without becoming too saccharine. Elwes was also in “Twister,” “Saw,” “Hot Shots!” and the Tom Cruise auto racing film “Days of Thunder.” He was much more saccharine in “Liar Liar” with Jim Carrey (click here for my review).
- A three-time Golden Globe winner and six-time nominee (not for this one), Grammer is also perfectly cast as the disingenuous, deceitful, get-it-done, no-nonsense and conniving general in charge of getting the Bradley into production. Grammer’s fast-talking and smooth, unctuous ways ultimately gives way to his frustrations with Elwes’ honesty and ethics – and Kelsey conveys his part perfectly. His ongoing debate with a member of Congress throughout the film sets the tone. Two years earlier, Grammer played the rouge and offbeat submarine skipper in “Down Periscope” (click here for my review) and in addition to his signature character on TV’s “Frasier” (earlier on “Cheers”) has been in “Swing Vote” and a string of other TV roles. He won two of this three Globes as well as the six nominations for “Frasier” and the other win was for TV’s “Boss.”
You might believe that after Grammer and Elwes there would be a drop-off in the supporting cast … but you’d be wrong. Although there are too many to explore completely in-depth here, I’ll hit the high notes:
- A Primetime Emmy winner and two-time nominee, Richard Schiff plays the longsuffering “Col. (then later Gen.) Smith,” who’s responsible for designing and building the Bradley. He spends more than 10 years in frustration as one additional feature is piled on after another. J.C. MacKenzie plays “Jones,” who designs the Bradley. He, too, is continually frustrated and can only shake his head at what’s happening (plus he adds barbed and wonderfully pithy comments). Schiff was also in “ Doolittle” in his prolific career. MacKenzie was also in three films with Leonardo DiCaprio: “The Departed” (click here for my review), “The Aviator” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He won and got his nominations for “The West Wing.”
- An Oscar winner and two-time nominee (not for this one), Viola Davis plays “Sgt. Fanning” and is Elwes’ assistant. She provides the low-key, common sense balance to the unpredictable world that swirls around her. It would have made this movie better if Davis had had more time in front of the camera. Ah, well. Davis won her statue for “Fences” and was nominated for “The Help” and “Doubt.”
- John C. McGinley notches another great role as the continually kibitzing “Col. J.D. Bock.” McGinley is terrific in such roles (he was one of the “Bobs” in “Office Space” – click here for my review) and puts his best foot forward here, too. McGinley has also been in “Platoon,” “The Rock,” “Any Given Sunday,” “Point Break” (click here for my review) with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze as well as TV’s “Scrubs.” Wow! What a career of outstanding supporting performances for this very talented actor.
- Clifton Powell plays “Sgt. Benjamin Dalton,” who is the non-commissioned officer in charge of the actual testing of the Bradley. Powell, who was also in “Ray,” “Rush Hour” and “Norbit,” gives a solid, commanding presence to his character. Powell has had an extensively prolific career with more than 230 acting credits as of December 2018.
In the end, all the foolishness (they killed sheep in one test – not really for filmmakers, it’s just a movie … as for the military, well …) and lying at just about every turn to Congress is exposed about the Army, but the bad guys get the promotions and the good guy is sent into retirement.
It’s great today to see all the wonderful work coming out of networks such as HBO, AMC, etc., and it all began with films such as “The Pentagon Wars.” You might also check out the wonderful “Barbarians at the Gate” (click here for my review) from 1993 by HBO about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco in the 1980s.
Since “The Pentagon Wars” was released via HBO it does not rank as a film with box office receipts for 1998. However, the No. 1 film at the U.S. box office was another military film: “Saving Private Ryan” with $216.5 million, according to Box Office Mojo. If you wanted something funnier, then you probably saw the Farrelly brothers’ “There’s Something About Mary,” which came in at No. 3 with $176.4 million. Films from that year that I’ve reviewed are:
- “Dirty Work” (pitiful; one of the worst) – click here for my review
- “The Night Flier” (unevenly bad vampire flick) – click here for my review
- “Rounders” (great cult poker film) – click here for my review
- “You’ve Got Mail” (great romantic comedy) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Richard Benjamin, who is the director of “The Pentagon Wars,” has a small role as Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Benjamin, who also acted in “Catch-22,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “Westworld,” does a credible job but he might have tightened up the filmmaking somewhat if he had remained behind the camera.
- Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis (remember her brother in a real tank?) plays the “Madame Chairman” of the armed services committee that’s grilling Grammer. She’s OK in the role and has also been in the really stupid and overrated “Moonstruck” (her Oscar) and the only-a-little-better “Look Who’s Talking.”
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