War movies have been known to re-connect generations, giving young audiences a means of understanding their parents or grandparents. Everything from “The Best Years of Our Lives” to “From Here to Eternity” to “Schindler’s List” and even “Pearl Harbor” provided a respectful opportunity for a pop culture conversation about World War II.
There is great artistic and (to a lesser degree, depending on the film) historical value to these movies. Yet, I wonder if there already haven’t been enough cinematic reenactments of the violent occurrences that took place between 1941-1946. I thought about this a lot during “Fury,” a rare WWII movie that I didn’t like and don’t think we really needed.
Logan Lerman stars as Norman, a soldier whose skill is typing, not warfare. He’s horrified to find himself ordered to join a crew of soldiers manning a tank, none of whom are happy to have an inexperienced pencil pusher in their midst. Brad Pitt plays the head of the group, who taunts and challenges Norman’s having never killed a German. Despite their tank’s outdated qualities, Pitt’s crew takes on the firepower of more advanced Nazi tanks and puts Norman through a grueling ordeal.
The characters and the film itself are constantly telling Norman that war is hell. We know. As dozens of other war movies and history itself have told us, yes, yes of course, war is hell. In the hands of writer/director David Ayer, a war movie is also an excuse to show as many exploding heads, eviscerated corpses and dangling intestines as possible. The argument is always that “we need to see this,” as the gore and broken humanity represent the atmosphere of battle. A better argument is, do we really need to see this much gore in order to understand?
Will showing Lerman mopping up a piece of a soldier’s blown-off face really make me feel more empathy for soldiers than ever before? Of course not, but Ayer is not in his element. He’s made grotesquely violent films before, but they all had better characters, fresher stories and had better fusions of his pulpy narratives and splatter punk mayhem. His recent “Sabotage,” featuring a surprisingly potent acting turn from Arnold Schwarzenegger, is even trashier and will never be considered “important”. Still, it trumps “Fury” in many ways, the most important being that I cared about all of the characters. Here, everyone in the tank is a repellent bully.
Lerman’s everyman-turned-war hero is presented as something of a pacifist, level-headed and compassionate. Over the course of his tour under Pitt’s command, he changes very quickly from a fearful, barely compliant and somewhat reluctant participant to a blood thirsty warrior. When he joins the group’s mantra of “this is the best job I’ve ever had,” it reminded me of the final words of Orwell’s “1984”: “I Love Big Brother.”
Watching Norman get literally beaten down by the abuse of his comrades, just so he understands clearly that “war is hell,” didn’t evoke feelings of patriotism or empathy in me. Instead, I found his rite of passage hideous and rooted for his fellow soldiers to step on a land mine, which I’m sure wasn’t what Ayer or the actors had in mind.
Pitt, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena are terrific, versatile actors but here, they’re playing the modern equivalent of Vikings, not men in uniform I’d find admirable. It was bold to paint the main characters as off-putting, though they’re also thin and one-note as characters. Shia LaBeouf is also in the cast, playing a religious member of the group; he’s miscast and a real distraction.
When the tanks aren’t firing, the story loses its hold. There’s an extended, annoyingly drawn-out scene involving two German women being “entertained” by Pitt and Lerman. It’s utterly self indulgent and makes an all-too-obvious punch line. The tank battles will give action fans what they want and the closing scenes are affecting. Still, most of Ayer’s previous works don’t have characterizations so rushed and false.