Some stories are best suited for prose. Others seem to demand the Hollywood treatment. When director Todd Phillips read Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article “The Stoner Arms Dealers,” about a pair of young Miami dudes who got in way over their heads as, well, arms dealers, he knew it was meant to be a movie. Even Lawson appears to have considered the story’s big-screen potential, intermittently describing his characters as though they were “the star[s] of a Hollywood blockbuster.”
Five years later, that blockbuster is War Dogs (Aug. 19) and its stars are Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, who play Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, respectively, childhood friends who exploited a government procurement opportunity to land a $300 million contract to supply the Afghan army in 2007. It was the kind of business that would normally go to a heavy hitter like Raytheon. Diveroli and Packouz, meanwhile, were half-baked and flying by the seats of their pants.
Phillips is best known as the director comedies like The Hangover and Old School—bromances, if you will (though Phillips won’t—he’s not a fan of the term) about grown men getting tangled in untenable circumstances and then attempting to riddle their way out, often ungracefully. What drew him to this story, though, wasn’t the male bonding part, but the untenable circumstances part. “I like situations in which characters, whether they’re male or female, make bad decisions and get themselves in over their heads,” he says. “I’m just sort of attracted to chaos.”
And Diveroli and Packouz’s story is nothing if not chaotic. The real-life friends met, wholesomely enough, at their orthodox synagogue in Miami. They struck up a friendship that was interrupted when Diveroli was kicked out of high school in the ninth grade and went to work in Los Angeles in the family business—arms dealing. When he returned to Miami years later, he reconnected with Packouz, who was hitting a ceiling on his entrepreneurial efforts selling bedsheets to nursing homes while working as a massage therapist. When Diveroli offered Packouz the chance join his growing venture and make millions, Packouz eagerly accepted. They embraced the derogatory term applied to hustlers like them: war dogs.
As AEY Inc., they took advantage of a government requirement that a certain percentage of contracts be awarded to small businesses, working their way up from helmets to AK-47s. What ensued was a web of shady contracting, cocaine-fueled crises and international diplomacy best left for the movie (or, if you want the whole story, Lawson’s 2015 book Arms and the Dudes). Though much of what they did was legal, some wasn’t (forging company information in order to make bids more attractive, for example, or procuring illegal ammunition), and the whole affair would ultimately come crashing down.
Phillips and co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic changed many of the details: Audis were swapped for Porsches, the nationality of the shady arms dealer played by producer Bradley Cooper was switched from Swiss to American. Phillips subscribes to the adage “never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” and he appreciated the freedom afforded by his subjects’ relative anonymity. As he explained, “We’re not making Lincoln—we’re making a movie about two stoners from Miami.”
In casting Hill and Teller, Phillips sought a balance between what Teller calls “that guy who can come into any room and take over” and the one who is very much “not that guy, but respects that guy.” As Efraim, Hill is as crude as they come. He’s a chameleon, assuming false identities to ingratiate himself with whoever’s on the other end of the phone. In one scene he’s a devout Christian, and in the next he’s waxing philosophical on last week’s Torah portion. His expressions of joy, punctuated with a high-pitched cackle, arrive whenever money is on the table, and his opposition to the war is trumped by the opportunities it presents to line his pockets. Still, he’s magnetic in his crassness.
“If you meet him in real life, he’s a great guy but he’s not necessarily electric,” says Phillips. “But when he’s onscreen in movies, he vibrates. That was why I wanted him so badly. I wanted this guy to be one of those guys that you fall in love with in the beginning, and by the end you’re supposed to hate him, but you kind of walk out and go, ‘He’s kind of cool, still.’”
With Hill playing an untouchable spectacle, it falls on Teller to be a way in for the audience, a challenge he welcomed coming off of playing the flamboyant boxer Vinny Pazienza for the forthcoming drama Bleed For This. “I enjoyed playing the guy with the redeeming qualities,” he says. “It’s nice to actually play a guy that you like.”
Teller spent time with the real-life Packouz on set—pay close attention and you’ll catch his cameo playing Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” at a nursing home—but by that point he had largely completed his preparations for the character. (Diveroli, who was released from prison last year, did not participate in the film). “Anytime you can meet the person you’re playing it’s always interesting,” says Teller, though he’s wary of people’s tendency to edit their own stories to their benefit. “It’s not a documentary, so I didn’t feel the need to imitate him.”
Though Phillips was drawn to the story’s human tale, it’s inextricably entwined with its political context, and he hopes viewers don’t confuse the story’s victims for its villains—or feel the need to draw such simple conclusions at all. “I think if you watch this movie through the correct lens, you don’t see it as these guys are horrible,” he explains. “You see it as an indictment on the government—the lack of checks and balances that exist at the Pentagon. The government was fully aware that you couldn’t source a hundred million rounds of ammo after two Iraq wars—there’s literally a drought of ammo—but the government didn’t give a s—t where it came from. It was for the Afghans. It wasn’t for our soldiers.”
Or, as Teller puts it, “They don’t make the statutes—they just figure out what they can do to make some money.” They don’t call them war dogs for nothing.
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Write to Eliza Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org