(SPOILERS) The fates have decreed that this week is David Ayer week. What did he do to deserve such treatment? What did I do? Fortunately, Fury is significantly better than Sabotage although it still falls incrementally short of Ayer’s prior picture End of Watch. My increasingly substantiated bugbear with the writer-director’s work is that he seems dedicated to the apparel of authenticity, which he then proceeds to undermine at every turn with hackneyed characterisation and cornball plotting. There are several very powerful sequences in Fury. It’s also a much, much better put together picture than Sabotage (on a technical score at least, this may be Ayer’s best work), although I’m still not inclined to lay the blame for Sabotage wholly on the meddlesome producers. But ultimately Fury drives over the same old landmine Spielberg marched into with Saving Private Ryan; this is a standard issue war picture dressed up in designer brutality, one that does not deserve accolades for truthfulness and the unveiling of the stark realities. Certainly not when it nurses the glorification of the same minutes later.
This doesn’t coming from some holier than thou position over war flicks, but annoyance at the effrontery of filmmakers who apply traditional motifs of valour and heroism but attempt to wolfishly disguise them within bloodied, battered, pulverised sheep’s clothing. War is an ugly thing, an obscene thing, it makes animals of good men. That’s the place where Ayer starts, depicting Pitt’s battle-hardened tank crew through the eyes of the most innocent of new recruits; Norman (Logan Lerman). But by the end Ayer has completed an about-face; war becomes a thing of honour and meaning, a noble thing, a thing for which it’s worth going out in a blaze of glory. And the turnaround, although there have been intimations the picture will go this way throughout, is so jarring and clichéd (“I’m staying with you!” volunteers Norman, and as one the rest of the men elect stay with their awesomely-coiffured leader; Bradley of the Immaculately-Oiled Hair) that the third act is rendered a disaster thematically, even if the filmmaking continues to exert a grip.
There’s a schematic feeling to Ayer’s construction, a three-pronged assault of viscera, rites of passage, and heroic sacrifice that ultimately manifests itself as a lumpen mulch (not unlike the depiction of bodies pulped into the mud). I’d be surprised if Ayer hadn’t seen Samuel Moaz’s 2009 Israeli tank movie Lebanon; although he eschews that picture’s conceit (setting the action entirely within the metal beast), he adopts a similar means of introducing the viewer to its confines in the form of fresh-faced new recruit Norman (later named “Machine” by his fellow tankers, once his endurance has been sufficiently tested and he is deemed worthy of camaraderie). Norman is a bewildered, petrified army typist convinced there must be some mistake behind his his transfer to assistant driver (he’s never been in a tank before).
The crew Norman is introduced to are nothing if not intimidating; staff sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), gunner “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), loader “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) – authentic period racism from Ayer there – and driver “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña). His baptism of fire, blood and bullets takes place over a mere 24 hours but since it’s so intentionally traumatic the impact is considerably dampened after his first few emotional assaults.
Ayer, who has experience in confined spaces from his stint in the US Navy aboard submarines, has referred to himself as ruthless in getting what he wants on film; hence the “making of” stories that are more interesting than the finished picture. One tends to cut a slightly overpowering, egomaniacal director some slack when the results are impressive (early-period Cameron, for example) but one can only conclude more-fool the poor actors here; seduced by the promise of playing it real, they have ended up in fare that squanders their toils. The boot camp is something of a tradition now, from Oliver Stone onwards, and the quintet certainly look like they stink, but when a script veers off into such weak pseudo-mythologising, the way this one does (something Platoon, a far superio film, is also guilty of), it begs the question why the artifice shouldn’t extend to the actors too. Just let them trying acting, David darling. That’s what they’re paid for.
So Ayer starts out diligently washing the screen with mud, blood and human remains. The body has become a piece of rancid meat to be bulldozered, rolled over or scraped off the floor. Wardaddy’s first act in the movie is to leap on a German soldier and stab him in the eye (before nuzzling a horse; see, he’s ruthless, but he absolutely loves animals and nature and all the stuff that tells you he’s only doing what’s necessary for himself and his crew – I half wondered if this was a poke at Spielberg’s War Horse, but everything subsequently said otherwise).
It isn’t long before Norman is face to face with half a face as he cleans out the tank. Ayer’s twisted pitch, whereby Norman is subjected to all manner of trials, results in some gruelling exchanges, but the connecting material tends to feel forced. When Norman doesn’t shoot a German because he’s just a kid, which leads to the deaths of a fellow tank crew, Wardaddy dispenses some tough loving by forcing Norman to shoot a German. Pitt and Lerman are outstanding in the scene, but the overriding sense is of Ayer pushing buttons.
We know Wardaddy feels deeply and hides it beneath having to do what men have to do. We know because we are privy to his moment alone, away from the men, following the death of his former assistant driver (and yet, Ayer can only make the moment curiously remote; he films it, but lacks the skill to make it interior and subjective). We know he’s doing this to Norman to ensure his crew’s survival. And, of course, it’s in Ayer’s design to make us shocked and repelled by Wardaddy’s behaviour only to have us come around, like Norman, and see why he has behaved the way he has. And that it was the only thing he could do in a desperate environment. The problem is, nothing Ayer does feels organic; the intent announces itself.
When the crew ensure a small town is captured, it’s time for some brief R&R, which further embellishes the father-son dynamic between Wardaddy and Norman. The extended sequence in which they enter the house of a German woman and her cousin is the best sustained and most interesting in the picture but it’s also evidence of all the problems in Ayer’s approach. The scene is pregnant with tension, which ebbs and flows, as initially we are unsure of Wardaddy’s intentions; could he be set to add rape to his repertoire of debased distinctions? But it’s clear Ayer has his limits; this isn’t really the worst that the army can make of you. Wardaddy may look like a bastard getting Norman to kill a German but he’s not a rapist, and he’s not a murderer of surrendering school kids. And he loves horses. It’s the kind of schematised, self-evident play that dogs Fury.
Also, there’s a particularly indefensible section in this section where Brad takes his shirt off so revealing his immense and very un-WWII buffery (how does he find time to wax his chest on the front line?). Not only does it show him off as the kind of guy these Kraut wenches are really missing out on, their being on the wrong side of the war and all, but there’s a bonus “Oo-ah!” moment as the cousin sees his horribly scarred back. Look how he’s suffered! Look how valiant he is! It’s a singular moment for insulting the viewer's intelligence, and signals the detour the picture takes in the final act. Nevertheless, the ensuing home invasion of the fellow tank crew members sets in motion a superbly unsettling back and forth between the bestial Travis, calculating Garcia and ambivalent Swan, and their staff sergeant, with the women and Norman in the middle.
Even Travis, who comes close to irredeemable in attitude, is granted a particularly wretched and bathetic moment with Norman where he confides that the youngster is a better man than him and the rest of the crew. Ayer only goes so far with the once unthinkable pronouncement that allies could be brutal just like the Hun and, of course, his about face confers sainthood on them all.
It may have been a good move on balance, given the frequent over-cranking, to keep overt character moments and insight to a minimum, but the all-round strong performances are unable to make up for the lack of depth (one assumes we don’t find out what Wardaddy did before the war because it was such an overt motif for Tom Hanks’ character in Private Ryan). Ayer might argue he’s just keeping it real, but that wouldn’t explain why he pulls his punches. The dialogue too is either unnaturaliscally “written” or rote.
La Boeuf, whose antics on this picure have become infamous, may as well not have bothered to show up for all the impact he has on screen. He’s a subdued presence, aside from his performance-driven moustache and scripture-quoting character tic. The latter, like so much here, fails to pay off in a meaningful manner (La Boeuf has referenced Ayer’s Christian inclinations, and one might see Wardaddy’s late-in-the-game revelation of Bible knowledge as a reflection of the tough-but-devout-deep-down director, but the philosophy of belief amid carnage is left unexplored).
Bernthal, one step from feral abandon, is outstanding, Peña underplays reliably, but only actors given much sustenance are Lerman and Pitt. Pitt is strong, solid, but he’s doing nothing groundbreaking and, as noted, there’s more than enough of the vanity-baiting to balance out any good intentions. When Jason Isaacs’ Captain meets him he offers the recommendation “I know who you are”. Wardaddy’s reputation precedes him; he’s a walking, talking god among men.
Lerman is very good, in a role that is similarly lacking in nuance. But Lerman’s very good in everything, and is ideally cast as the naif; it will be interesting to see him graduate to older roles eventually, but I expect he’ll have to play Spider-man before that happens. One sympathises with what was clearly an ordeal for the actor and his character, but has to echo the question La Boeuf should be asking; was it worth it, for such so-so results (apart from being able to say dumb things like “It really felt like going to war”)? Particularly when much of Norman’s shift from scared and gun-shy to scared and trigger-happy involves him repeating the refrain “Fuck you, Nazis!”
So why does Wardaddy deserve the audience’s veneration for deciding to commit virtual suicide, and condemning his loyal men to slaughter? The anodyne reason (“We ain’t never run before, why we going to run now?”) is hardly sufficient, unless you live in a movie. Ayer seems to be playing it out like some kind of glorious Spartan last stand. This the sergeant who only hours before admonished Norman for nearly getting them killed now he gets them killed. And for what? To defend a road from on-their-last-legs German forces? Sorry, I’ll correct that, hundreds of rampaging Nazis? One might offer a defence that he wishes to go out now, knowing he cannot return to civilisation after what he has seen and done, but letting his crew go with him is no way for such a great and respected leader to behave. Or perhaps he’s just lost it; after all, his orders get several of his fellow tanks and their crews totalled in an earlier scene. As for the fight itself, four against several hundred; WWII one-man mass slaughters of the bosche haven’t had it this good since Where Eagles Dare (now that’s an unreconstituted but great war movie).
The final act certainly solidifies the nascent fears over where Ayer was going with Fury and how he views his fight. The backdrop of “war is hell” steadily becomes an underlying and then not so underlying glorification of war. War is exciting; war is something one can become proficient at, with a little staying power. And as I’ve said, most decent war movies are likely going to be saying those things on some level. But there’s something particularly distasteful about the overwriting of old-Hollywood gung ho machismo with a new vision of the tarnished hero’s abiding spirit that is ultimately just as dishonest. Like Private Ryan, if you kill all your heroes it must be real, and right, no matter what (not-so) artistic licence you have taken along the way.
Using WWII as a forum for the brutality of both sides in conflict, as Ryan did, is long since not such a sacred cow (The Good War, remember; transposing the now-bedded in depiction of warfare from Vietnam movies is, on some level, a very cynical act). Particularly since Ayer encourages the general approach objectifying rather than comprehending. The Nazis, we can all get behind slaughtering them, right? At one point Wardaddy shows Norman a room full of Germans who have committed suicide and passes comment on his new recruit’s position; “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent”. It’s the kind of rehearsed platitude that exposes how empty of thematic content Ayer’s picture is. When he attempts to spatter the picture with consideration or soliloquising the results are only ever ungainly. This is most awkwardly rendered when Norman, lying in the mud beneath the stricken tank, is discovered by a - yes! - Nazi soldier who surprisingly leaves him be. It may be a last minute nod on Ayer's part to all those on the other side who are as uncertain and unconvinced by all the killing as Norman (even given that he has come on in leaps and bounds over the course of a day) but it plays as facile after the way his fellow Nazis have been treated as justifiable cannon fodder. Are they all evil or not, then? Ayer can't really have it both ways (he'd already done the "They're just children" bit; which leaves him free to ensure those Nazis who get it at the end really deserve it, make no mistake).
Ayer’s film is technically impressive and immediate. But it’s also a meat-and-potatoes affair; better than the inedible stodge serve up by Sabotage but as graceless and blunt as the rest of the director’s output. Roman Vasaynov, who also lensed End of Watch, provides some strong imagery amid the mud, although the effects team’s pronounced tracer flares frequently make this look like a Lucasfilm production. On top of that, the melodramatic score from Steven Price is rooting out and grappling with every one of Ayer’s worst instincts. John Williams probably inspired him.
If Ayer had dispensed with the overdone pronouncements on war and concentrated on making an unadorned tank picture, Fury might have had a chance at being better than passable. At least then it could lay claim to the veneer of realism it expects audiences to buy into. The innards and the artifice don’t blend; they repel each other, and we’re left wondering is there much point to this exercise? Or is it just going through the same familiar motions of the war picture? Presumably Ayer echoes the tank crew’s “Best job in the world” mantra (which one hoped was ironic), except the only position that tops it for him is wreaking havoc on a movie set. I suppose we should be grateful that Lerman, Charlie Sheen-like doesn’t indulge in an over-earnest reflection of what it was all for (although he’s probably as mystified as everyone else after Wardaddy’s potty plan of attack). But at least that might have suggested some design on Ayer’s part. War is brutal, war is hell, but look how beautifully they died.