Saturday, September 5, 2020

Movie Reviews: Pentagon Wars

Pentagon Wars
directed by Richard Benjamin
This older film is a black comedy that details the various battles in the Army over the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. 

Although military familiarity may help one understand this movie even better, ultimately the frustrations of the hero and his allies will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in any sort of entrenched bureaucracy, whether the organization's stated purpose is to kill people and blow things up or save the whales.  

Certainly design engineers or programmers reporting to clueless business managers will recognize some scenarios. The late author Jerry Pournelle conceived of an Iron Law of Bureaucracy such that: 
Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. 
Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions. LINK
It's this thinking which allows auto companies to knowingly sell vehicles with defective transmissions or fuel tanks, banks to help drug cartels launder billions, or lawyers to go on vacation to islands owned by billionaire pedophiles. This mindset allows military officials to be more invested in a project's success rather than questioning if the project helps save American lives and win wars.

Congress has become irritated with the budget overruns and delays on the Army's proposed Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which by the mid 80s has been in development for almost twenty years. Congress no longer trusts the Army project updates.

So Congress has "suggested" (and when you hold the purse strings and ability to say yea or nay to promotions, your suggestions tend to be followed) that an outside project manager be brought in to streamline testing and provide an unbiased cost review.

This new project manager is Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Burton (Cary Elwes), a man who is old enough to understand the system but young enough to still have some idealism left. Burton believes that the safety of the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen who make up the US Armed Forces should be foremost in everyone's mind. 

Burton is attached to the staff of Army Major General Partridge (Kelsey Grammer), who oversees the Bradley Fighting Vehicle development. General Partridge dislikes Lt. Colonel Burton from the start. And the feeling is mutual,  especially once Burton starts digging into the cost overruns and the fake testing.  The on-site project managers are Colonel Bock (John McGinley) and Major Sayers (Tom Wright). 

Both men, much like their boss Partridge, are keen to get their next promotion in the up or out military milieu. They also want to keep their options open for cushy jobs with defense contractors or lobbyists. You don't get those things by being associated with failure. All three men employ their considerable resources and those of their reports to prevent Burton from doing his job and testing the Bradley Fighting Vehicle's combat value. 

Burton's only tools are an encyclopedic knowledge of military laws and procedures, a cynical sergeant (Clifton Powell), a despondent general afraid of being a true whistleblower (Richard Schiff), the fact that Burton's chain of command does not strictly speaking include Partridge, and his solid integrity.

This is not a drop dead laugh out loud movie. It's more of a quietly absurd one. The escalating battles between Partridge and Burton are both high stakes and humorous. Partridge employs every item in his toolbox to scare Burton off, beat him down or buy him off. If you've ever dared to stand up for what you think is right and pay the price or admire those who have, you might enjoy this film. Viola Davis and Olympia Dukakis have small roles.
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