I can’t remember why I queued The Pentagon Wars. When it started, I kept waiting for the writing credits because I figured it must have been for the writers (it wasn’t). The Pentagon Wars chronicles a colonel’s efforts to get the Pentagon to responsibly develop an armored personnel carrier. It’s also an absurdist comedy. Kelsey Grammer’s the bad guy, the general who can’t answer a straight question and is just waiting for his cushy defense industry job post-retirement. The film alternates between being laugh out-loud funny (Grammer’s fantastic) and depressing. The military-industrial complex shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and the film actually skirts over that issue quite a bit. Instead, it concentrates on just how much the Pentagon brass is willing to sacrifice troop safety for fashionable accouterments.
The Pentagon Wars was an HBO movie (produced by Jersey Films, which explains some of the quality) and director Richard Benjamin never quite makes it anything more than a televised film. There’s no real character development, no real character arcs, no real character relationships. There’s a bunch of good acting–Grammer, Richard Schiff, John C. McGinley, and Tom Wright (actually, Benjamin’s fine in his cameo too)–and the film’s scenically constructed to allow these actors to amuse. As the straight man, Cary Elwes gives his standard wooden performance. While the script doesn’t involve itself too much with the depth of Elwes’s character, he’s still entirely incapable of giving it any. That arrangement works out, because no matter how many times Elwes fails, the film isn’t requiring him to do anything.
The film, though it never actually quite earns that descriptor, manages to endear itself (mostly due to Benjamin’s amiable handling and the performances). Watching the film–even appreciating it and its humor and its successes (it’s a safe quirky)–I kept wanting it to take itself seriously, as its subject is not a particularly frivolous one. When the seriousness finally did arrive, it came too late–and then the film called upon Elwes… and he couldn’t handle it (surprise, surprise). Still, the attempt was enough to hinder the experience.
Directed by Richard Benjamin; screenplay by Jamie Malanowski and Marytn Burke, based on the book by James Burton; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Jacqueline Cambas; music by Joseph Vitarelli; production designer, Vincent M. Cresciman; produced by Howard Meltzer; released by Home Box Office.
Starring Kelsey Grammer (Maj. Gen. Partridge), Cary Elwes (Lt. Col. James Burton), Viola Davis (Platoon Sgt. Fanning), John C. McGinley (Col. J.D. Bock), Tom Wright (Maj. William Sayers), Clifton Powell (Sgt. Benjamn Dalton), Dewey Weber (Sp4 Ganger), Richard Schiff (Col. / Brig. Gen. Robert Laurel Smith), J.C. MacKenzie (Jones), Richard Benjamin (Caspar Weinberger) and Olympia Dukakis (Madam Chairwoman, Armed Services Committee).