A couple months before Todd Philips’ comedy adventure flick War Dogs hit theaters, one of the men on whom it’s based filed a lawsuit. Efraim Diveroli — one of two 20-something stoners from Miami Beach who tried to con the U.S. military into buying illegal guns and ammunition during the Iraq War, inspiring an optioned Rolling Stone feature and subsequent book by Guy Lawson — claimed that Philips, the studio Warner Bros., and a slew of other parties involved had adapted his life story without permission, pilfering from his own manuscript (which he wrote in prison) without cutting him in on the profits from the film. It’s a messy, complicated case, but one thing is certain: No matter who comes out on top — it will probably be Warner, though the studio itself is barely breaking even on the project — we all lose.
That’s because War Dogs, regardless of who wrote the account, is the latest in an unsettling pop cultural trend that purports to scrutinize the sinister excesses of late-late capitalism, while in reality only reinforcing and glorifying them through lopsided storytelling and Hollywood’s own obscene wealth.
You could call it One-Percenter Debauchery Porn.
At first blush, War Dogs — like its vastly more successful sibling, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street — seems merely a descendant in that long tradition of capitalist cautionary tales. The Great Gatsby; Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City; Mary Harron’s American Psycho adaptation; Wall Street — America’s fascination with the evils of money and those who thirst insatiably for it has fueled countless literary and cinematic dissections over the years. Many have become icons of American cinema. Diveroli (played by Jonah Hill) and partner/narrator David Packouz (Miles Teller) know these films; they’re so obsessed with Scarface that they tote a massive framed still of Al Pacino with an M16 with them from office to office as they ascend the arms-dealing ladder to riches.
But War Dogs and Wolf of Wall Street are true stories. Diveroli and Packouz and Wolf’s Jordan Belfort aren’t symbols or avatars or loose caricatures — they’re real-life assholes. Not in a cool, Walter White, Goodfellas sort of way — they are real bad men who did real bad things for fun and profit that ultimately ruined the lives of innocent strangers. The problem isn’t that their stories are being told; it’s that they’re being told, and retold, and retold, milked over and over, lavishly and obscenely (often with production budgets financed by equally wealthy parties), so that they become indistinguishable from fiction.
One-Percenter-Bro Debauchery Porn movies want you to want these plucky, boys-will-be-boys protagonist underdogs to win. When Diveroli convinces Packouz to team up with him by explaining, “This isn’t about being pro-war; it’s about being pro-money” — failing to mention how making that money will affect everyone else — this rationale is hardly questioned at all, let alone seriously. Meanwhile, these men swagger in slow-motion to the tune of AC/DC and Cypress Hill, wearing expensive sunglasses and carrying bags of cash and guns. Racism, homophobia and even sexual assault (remember this scene?) are all played, very intentionally, for laughs. Their pregnant girlfriends and wives are minor obstacles, pain-in-the-ass burdens to be managed at arm’s length, until things get too scary and they want to come crawling back to the safety of family. The suffering they cause everyone around them — the hundreds of working-class people Belfort’s companies financially devastated, the hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Middle East killed with Diveroli and Packouz’s guns — is literally background noise, not even worth showing on-screen. No matter the noise, we are never asked to be seriously disgusted with Belfort, Diveroli or Packouz.
And though the people making these movies would deny it, with every retelling of stories like War Dogs comes not the humanization or contextualization of major white-collar crime, but the further glorification of it. It isn’t a spectacular, apocalyptic, visceral evil — it’s the banal, boring kind of villainy that any white man can accomplish with a clever knack for capitalism and that strain of sociopathy reserved for those who can’t summon any empathy for those they crush in their endeavors to get rich. The lionized violence and crime of mafia and gangsta-rap stories at least originated in socioeconomic oppression. Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman were at least painted as twisted, unappealing monsters. Now it’s punk to be an arms trafficker. It’s badass to be a penny-stock swindler. Exploitation is rock ‘n’ roll.
In an era when the effects of toxic masculinity, white supremacy and runaway capitalism are felt on an individual, minute-to-minute basis, these true-life stories uphold the status quo. They give those in power — or those who aspire to it — a satisfying, accountability-free adventure. This isn’t anti-heroism for the sake of critique or satire, it’s anti-heroism that soothes the anxieties of those men who should be nervous (and possibly jailed).
Because unlike the aspirational protagonists of Goodfellas or The Chronic, these swindlers are only risking a paltry couple of years — if not months — of prison time. They’re not engaging in the kind of criminal activity that involves gang violence or blood feuds (well, except maybe the scene where Packouz and Diveroli personally drive their guns across the Jordanian border to Baghdad via the “Triangle of Death”). In real life, Diveroli and Packouz were indicted for 70 federal fraud counts. They both pleaded guilty and Diveroli was sentenced to a laughable four years in prison. Packouz cooperated further, and got off with an even more ludicrous seven months’ house arrest — in his gorgeous multimillion-dollar apartment. (Diveroli, now released from prison, “lives in a condo with a locked gate and drives a Beamer”; Belfort lives in a beachfront home in Manhattan Beach, California.) In the film’s telling, notorious arms dealer Henry Girard, feeling bad about having doubted (and kidnapped) Packouz, goes as far as secretly cutting him in on his take from the deal after the federal cases are done with. Packouz and Diveroli’s company will even be allowed to go back to bidding on government contracts again in 2022. Even if they didn’t financially profit from the film, they still had a major Hollywood blockbuster made about their exploits, one that makes them look incredibly cool.
These “characters” (again: real people) have very little skin in the game — and their ability to walk away from these crimes to enjoy comfortably wealthy lives afterward only adds to the romance. White men are clinging more and more desperately, dangerously and ultimately ineffectively to this toxic fantasy with each passing year.
To a certain degree, ironic receptions of satire are never completely avoidable. Most of those one-percenter bros who loved The Wolf of Wall Street will remain completely un-self-aware for all eternity. But the way these stories are framed once Hollywood plucks them out of the newspapers, sprinkles them with magic money dust, and slaps a cool soundtrack on top — thus further milking an already-exploitative story for cash — takes them far away from the intended effective commentary.
This isn’t a morality sermon, nor a recommendation that true stories be tweaked in order to tell a less hedonistic story. The trouble with these movies is not that they star despicable characters, but because they don’t tell the whole story. They tell the story that sells. The story that aspirational Belforts and Diverolis and Packouzes want to hear. The AC/DC story. Lest we forget, Wall Street owns a lot of Hollywood stock. When all of the villains just love your work, what work did you really do?
Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Grantland, Vulture and the Los Angeles Times, among others.