The American people are often quite divided on what they hold dear as “values.” On any number of issues you can get both extremes and shades of nuance that add up to dozens, if not more, of variations on what people would call a core American value system. But there’s one thing most people would have no trouble agreeing on: Making as much money as you can is a good thing. Whatever you can do, however you can hustle, even if some of it dips into a kind of murky moral or ethical territory…it’s all good. Just don’t actively kill anyone. Making money is, if not the actual American Dream, the precursor to achieving it.
War Dogs, the new movie starring Miles Teller and Jonah Hill that’s directed by Todd Phillips, is about doing whatever it takes to make a big payday. Based on a true story, Teller plays David Packouz, a guy who’s making a decent living as a massage therapist. One day he runs into old friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill), who’s looking for a partner for his international gun sales operation. The two score a lucrative contract to arm the Afghan military and quickly become known as a pair of reckless thrill seekers will to sell to anyone for any price. That gets them involved with all sorts of shady organizations and people, something that amps up the danger but also the potential pay day.
The movie’s one poster really wants you to think this is a modern version of Scarface. Hill and Teller (their images opposite the way their names are listed) are shown in a black-and-white background, very arty, purple versions of their faces contrasting with that monochromatic setting. Hill carries a gun and it’s…it’s just a strict homage to the iconic Scarface one-sheet that adorns the walls of college dorms and everyone who ever appeared on “MTV Cribs.” At the top we’re reminded this comes from the director of The Hangover Trilogy, in the middle we’re told this is based on a true story and at the bottom it’s sold as “An American dream.”
The first trailer sets up the premise by explaining who the main characters are, a couple of bro contractors who way under-bid on a government contract related to the war in Afghanistan. Once they’re on the job they use their money and resources to basically live a hedonistic life to its fullest in a war zone, blowing it all on booze and women and adventures that they’re massively unqualified for.
If this seems thin, that’s because it is. What the studio is selling here isn’t a complicated story, if one even exists, but a rollicking bro-tastic adventure in the desert. It’s all about attitude as this is presented as, for lack of a better description, The Middle East Hangover.
The second trailer definitely presents the story from David’s point of view as we see him basically get in over his head in one situation after another. That begins with his decision to leave his job as a massage therapist and join Efraim as a grey-to-black market international arms dealer, selling weapons to the kind of people who may or may not do good things with them. It includes lying to his wife (girlfriend? It’s not clear) and finding himself in live-or-die situations over and over again.
This one if maybe a bit better than the first, but not by much. The focus on a single character helps give it some structure, otherwise it’s just more hijinks. There’s also a lot more Bradley Cooper in this one, which may be because his role is actually that substantial or it might be because he’s another very recognizable face and name for the marketing to hang its hat on.
Online and Social
When you open the movie’s official website you get the same key art seen on the poster. The site is built on Tumblr and there are a number of content sections listed at the top of the page.
The first of those section is “Story” and has an alright paragraph-length synopsis of the story before it devolves into the usual kind of credit recitation of who the filmmakers and producers are and why they’re so awesome. After that is “Videos,” which has the two trailers. The “Gallery” is surprisingly robust, with quite a few stills from the movie that help show off the look and feel.
After that is something that’s quite unusual but which is a very cool addition for a movie that’s based on a true story like this. It’s called By The Numbers and opens a new page with an interactive infographic showing stats about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That includes how much it costs simply to outfit a soldier, how much is spent every year on maintaining troops in-country, what the annual budget for defense spending is and more. The graphic provides background and context for the movie and is a great addition to the online presence.
Back at the main site, the last couple sections are just dedicated to getting you to find tickets and showtimes or to buying tickets. If you go back to the home page of the site and scroll down you can also see a collection of GIFs from the movie that have been posted and which are available for sharing either on Tumblr or the other network of your choice.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV spots like this one were run early and often that sold the movie as less a cautionary tale about getting in over your head while engaging in shady business practices and more as a colorful, id-filled romp through exotic locations while selling guns to the exact kind of people you shouldn’t sell guns to. It’s certainly a comedy based on these spots.
Early ads for the movie included Promoted Tweets that used the first trailer as the video and shared the release date.
Media and Publicity
An interview with Phillips about the genesis of the movie and what it was like to work with Hill and Teller led off the publicity for the movie, which also included some first-look stills. Later on the two actors, Hill and Teller, did a joint interview where they talked about the coincidences that got them involved in the project, working with Phillips and more.
A big profile of Hill attempted to change the narrative around the actor a bit, or at least give it some depth, by pointing out that while he’s best known for sill comedies where he plays inappropriate, loud-mouthed characters he has nearly as many dramatic credits to his name. That’s important to the War Dogs publicity campaign since it’s trying to walk the line between comedy and drama.
Teller and Hill also made the rounds of the talk shows to promote the movie, play games and otherwise just raise awareness.
Philips gave a couple interviews like this one where he talked about why it was important to him to break out of his bro-comedy comfort zone and tell a true story like this one. There was also an opportunity for David Chin, the movie’s screenwriter and someone with his own experience and stories of Iraq, to talk about bringing all of that to bear on a story he’s been working on since at least 2007.
If there’s fault to find with this campaign it’s that there isn’t really a consistent tone or feel. The campaign can’t decide if it’s selling Bros Running Guns or Kind Of Serious Social Commentary. The formal marketing is very much the former but the publicity and press push seems to tack more in the latter’s direction. It all adds up to something that might be fun, it might have something important to say, or it might be one of those movies that winds up somewhere inbetween and comes off as kind of a muddled mess.
That speculation aside, the campaign cuts kind of a heavy tone. Not “heavy” meaning it has a super-serious tone. More that everything on display here seems very…calculated. Some movies have a kind of lightness and bounce to them, regardless of subject matter. This doesn’t. Instead it seems weighted down. That might just be a byproduct of Teller and Hill, neither of whom are very “light” actors, instead seeming to do everything with furrowed brows or a sense of self-satisfaction that often gets in the way of whatever it is they’re doing. Whether or not the movie moves at the pace suggested by the campaign remains, of course, to be seen.