Movie review: ‘The Pentagon Wars’

pwI 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 what’s coming out of Hollywood studios these days, those kind of films have evolved to become great and often spectacular. One early effort 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.

‘Pentagon Wars’
(1999; 104 minutes; rated R – but nowhere near deserving of the rating; directed by Richard Benjamin and starring Kelsey Grammer, Cary Elwes and Viola Davis)


(NOTE: I expanded this review with links and some additional comments on Oct. 20, 2015.)

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 you know how that goes), but the film is fun to watch and headliners Kelsey Grammer and Cary Elwes each do a wonderful turn.


It’s 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.

Elwes as U.S. Air Force “Col. James Burton” is assigned as the impartial 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 and waste of taxpayers’ dollars.

Elwes was 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.”

Grammer is also perfectly cast as the 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. His ongoing debate with a member of Congress throughout the film sets the tone and is a good example of his talent.

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.

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:

  • 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, 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.”
  • Viola Davis plays “Sgt. Fanning” and is Elwes’ assistant. She provides the low-key, common sense balance to the unpredictable world around her. Davis was also in “The Help” and “Eat Pray Love.”
  • John C. McGinley notches another great role as the continually kibitzing “Col. J.D. Bock.” McGinley is terrific in such roles (remember him being one of the “Bobs” in “Office Space” — click here for my review — that came out a year later?) 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.
  • 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.

In the end, all the foolishness (they killed sheep in one test – not really, it’s just a film) and lying (at just about every turn) by the military to Congress is exposed, 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. However, the No. 1 film at the U.S. box office in 1998 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 include the terrific chick flick “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review); the underrated horror film “The Night Flier” (click here for my review); the absolutely horrid “Dirty Work” with Norm MacDonald (click here for my review); and the outstanding poker film “Rounders” with Matt Damon and Edward Norton (click here for my review).

Assorted cast and film notes (via

  • 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 solid in the role and has also been in “Moonstruck” (her Oscar) and “Look Who’s Talking.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2015.
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