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Signifying Nothing? When the Man Behind ‘Training Day’ and ‘End of Watch’ Tackles WWII

As long as someone’s head is being blown off, ‘Fury’ isn’t bad.

As long as someone’s head is being blown off, Fury isn’t bad. The technique on display is about what you’d expect for a World War II movie that reserves its most reverent imagery for the mechanical majesty of tanks. But at some point you’re able to pull yourself together to notice that when gunfire strikes a procession of armored vehicles and a soldier flies from a turret, he does so the way Gonzo might in a Muppet movie. You notice that it’s not rockets speeding into armored vehicles, but lasers. Yes, the tanks look like they’re shooting lasers. It’s apparently an accurate rendition of how period tracer rounds worked, but still: green for the Germans, molten pink for the U.S. It’s a small, smartish detail that makes it easier to keep track of which side is firing upon what. It also reconstitutes the shooting as something fit for Atari.

The film’s deliberateness made me queasy. It flirts with celebration — not of war, but of a director’s proving he can re-create it, searingly, graphically. I saw the ads for this movie and noticed that its writer and director was David Ayer, and I thought, Great. Because what the Second World War needs is the writer of Training Day and the director of Harsh Times and Sabotage. Ayer is still putting a premium on masculine bravado and his usual grisly chaos. The cameras in this spring’s Sabotage slid around in gore. Here, the movie’s war virgin and audience surrogate — a young, bright-eyed typist named Norman (Logan Lerman) — removes half a face from a bloody tank interior. But there’s an ambitious steadiness to what Ayer has done in Fury. You might say he’s applying himself. It’s a self-conscious application, though: war for filmmaking’s sake.

Fury drags us back to 1945 Germany with a tale of Ayer’s own creation. As the war is winding down, a band of 2nd Armored Division soldiers conducts rescue and support missions: free American soldiers holed up in a small town, stop a supply train from being overtaken. The title is derived from a Sherman M4A2E8 tank. The letters “F-U-R-Y” have been painted in white on the cannon. It’s got an almost prehistoric grandeur. And — under the hyperconsciously masculinized circumstances — in that looming tank gun, it’s also got a big dick. Certainly, Ayer is showing us the war from a new angle. I’ve never spent this much time in a Sherman. There’s a high that comes from watching the soldiers — and, for that matter, the filmmakers — harmonize to bring the tank alive: the use of the periscope, the swiveling of the gun seat, the cranking adjustment and loading of the giant gun. The movie appreciates the labor required for its danger.

The men who operate the tank are types, each with a character-defining war handle. “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf) quotes Scripture and wears a mustache. “Gordo” (Michael Peña) speaks Spanglish and sports a thick chain atop his uniform. And it’s presumable that, with his drawl and graying teeth, “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal) isn’t from Greenwich. The officer in charge (Brad Pitt) is a terse sergeant with pomaded hair. In the opening tracking shot, a soldier rides a white horse through the smoking ruins of a battlefield. The foreboding tranquillity of the image dies the instant the horse passes the Fury and a man climbs off the tank and stabs the soldier until he’s dead.

That’s Pitt’s character: “Wardaddy.” Most people in the movie call him Don, and his carriage commands respect. Most of the time, the men have a louche camaraderie that transforms the tank’s close quarters into a dorm room. They’re such types that they’re almost self-conscious about it, the way cops in Ayer’s other films perform a kind of copness. Norman is the new guy. The face he scrapes up belongs to the previous fellow. Bible and Coon-Ass and Gordo, they miss their old comrade and aren’t too crazy about Norman and his open pacifism. As the guy in the machine gunner’s seat, he has to learn to shoot. Sergeant Don has to be the tough-love parent — the Wardaddy — who puts a pistol in Norman’s hand, holds him down, and makes him kill a German soldier.

We’re supposed to find harrowing the momentary thrill Norman receives from peering through the gun hatch and mowing men down. But moralism isn’t Ayer’s strong suit. He’s trying for the grit and grandeur and surprise of latter-day American war films — Apocalypse Now, The Big Red One, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Inglourious Basterds. A vanquished German town provides the setting for an extended interlude in which Don takes Norman into an apartment still occupied by a mother and daughter (beautifully acted by Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg). As American soldiers drink and loot and party in the square outside the building, Don tries to steal for himself some civility: a shave, a meal, maybe the touch of a woman. Don forces Norman to head into a bedroom with the daughter, who somehow manages to shed her reluctance.

This sequence is almost the only reason to have Pitt in this movie. He barely seems to talk (Don does speak German), but the authority of his presence dominates the apartment. The other three characters take their orders from Don’s silence, his eyes. This is a passage that could have transformed the film — darkened it, opened it outward. But once the other men of the Fury intrude — drunk, belligerent, jealous that Don brought Norman upstairs for sex and not one of them — Ayer’s script doesn’t know where to go with this disrupted oasis, so he obliterates it. That sequence is confusing. The arriving men menace the frightened women and tell a sloshed, bitter story that’s meant to get at the war’s horror. But the moment doesn’t explicate the soul of the movie as does the digressive rubber plantation dinner sequence Francis Ford Coppola added to Apocalypse Now or provide comedy and then unbearable suspense as the beer hall sequence does in Inglourious Basterds. Maybe Ayer thinks it does, but he’s straining for meaningfulness.

It’s a digression that challenges Don’s authority in the wrong way. Does he have control of these guys or not? It’s as if the only reason he picked the newbie to come upstairs is that the younger man’s name is “Norm.” No one else really gets to do much. That is, except the movie effects team. That’s a shame, since LaBeouf, Bernthal, and Peña have clearly worked out backstories for these guys. LaBeouf’s mustache appears to perform his monologues for him. And Lerman isn’t bad. But the audience doesn’t need to identify with an innocent. Give him something to act.

♦♦♦

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The overarching moral structure of World War II has lent itself to ready-made Hollywood heroism since before it even ended. The U.S. was good, the Nazis bad. American movies keep going back to that war because it’s the one that most cleanly showcases valor. The moral lines — with regard to Germany — are navigably straight enough to make the modern declinists sound blasphemous. Even when American soldiers die in these movies, history reassures us that they win. No matter how complex or prone to quagmire our other military engagements, we’ll always have this part of WWII to romanticize. And we’ll always have the Germans, whose eternal damnation for Nazism and the Holocaust is the Hollywood war picture. Fury leans on the fantasy of Nazi expendability the way Pac-Man relies on pellets and levitating fruit: game over without them.

The American outfit in Inglourious Basterds includes Jews who take out the Third Reich in an infernal bloodbath. Quentin Tarantino’s revisionism was distasteful, but at least he took a risk in his attempt to revise. You don’t know what more Ayer is after with Fury other than, say, staging one tank fight that looks like a dance between two geriatric dinosaurs. It’s an excitingly done encounter that indicates how grueling battle between two armored beasts must have been 70 years ago. But even just between an American Sherman and what the Americans know to be a more advanced German Tiger, it’s like pointed, macho commentary on remote-control warfare. Drones? What a joke. Even with Hitler on the ropes as he was, the German forces don’t relent. Here they are the killers of women, children, and Jews, and Ayer treats them like invading zombies whose determination not to lose is as strong as the Allies’ determination to win.

A fatalism unites all of Ayer’s movies, even his best film, End of Watch. He makes police movies about how moral and spiritual corruption function in broad daylight. The move to war seemed inevitable. This is the first of his movies in which that fatalism culminates in a state of grace I’ve never experienced in a war film before. At some point, a peace comes over you, knowing a kind of death is the only outcome in any combat scenario. This is different from the artistic transcendence a magnum opus by Jean Renoir or Andrei Tarkovsky makes you feel. Ayer achieves about 140 seconds of grimly sublime convergence in which the men and the Fury become one. It was a relief to let go of anxiety, fear, and dread I didn’t realize I was sharing with these men, as thinly drawn as they are. A director with the power and skill to do that might consider applying those attributes to the conflicts of these harsh times.