Politics & Policy

War Memorials: Fury and Diplomacy

David Ayer wipes the smirk off Brad Pitt's face; Volker Schlondorff restages the struggle for Paris.

It’s a good sign that Brad Pitt’s World War II movie Fury beat Gone Girl at this weekend’s box office (patriotic sacrifice overtaking absurdist pseudo-feminism with a $23.5 million weekend gross). And it’s fascinating that Pitt’s emotionally intense male-bonding movie opened almost exactly 15 years to the day after Fight Club, his seminal millennial film. In both movies Pitt deals with the intricacies of masculine initiative: Fury’s military duty compliments Fight Club’s civilian bravado. Together, these films exhibit contemporary notions about the condition of manhood and American bonding.

As Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, Pitt leads a unit of  soldiers in an M4 Sherman tank (labeled “Fury”) against better-equipped Nazi tank regiments. His diverse troops include a Latino (Michael Pena), a New Yorker (Jon Bernthal), and a religious solider (Shia LeBeouf). When a rookie private (Logan Lerman) replaces a recently killed gunner, Wardaddy’s crew gets reminded of their hardened humanity and their impending martyrdom.

This time Pitt’s masculine ideal exists in a different context from that of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (a figment of modern emasculated man) or his cartoonish World War II officer-sadist in Inglourious Basterds. Fight Club revived interest in traditional macho behavior by exploring ambivalence among the privileged classes who no longer wanted to sign up to prove their manhood yet needed to assert their aggression through subcultural folly.

Pitt’s Wardaddy is a bold rebuke to that hipster idea. He is the non-ironic embodiment of military valor and masculine courage — attributes that have lost favor in Hollywood since the end of  conscription requirements in 1973. In the 40 years since, images of admirable patriotic virility have drained out of our popular culture, except in documentaries like Restrepo and Korengal.

Instances of criminal or renegade audacity have become Hollywood’s masculine testing ground ever since Fight Club offered sadomasochism, paranoia, and Pitt’s sexy swagger — a sinister cocktail. A war movie comes automatically spike — and without the cynicism – which means Fury updates Fight Club’s anti-militarism and revises it for the post-9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan era.

Fury’s title suggests a fearless examination of what war is about. Although set during World War II, it has contemporary intentions, as did Robert Altman’s 1970 M*A*S*H, which was set during the Korean conflict but clearly reflected then-current attitudes about the Vietnam war. Fury is an unembarrassed allegory for what American moviegoers, hoodwinked by video-game detachment and news-media blackouts, don’t know about the savagery of warfare. 

Writer-director David Ayer uses an epic format to broach our culture’s distance from the painful costs and tragedies suffered by Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. This extends his usual attention to street warfare experienced by urban police in such films as Training Day and the often fine End of Watch. Too late to simply imitate the landmark Saving Private Ryan, Ayer dramatizes our soldiers’ moral turmoil  and physical danger, even when Wardaddy corrals two female German villagers to prepare a meal and provide sexual initiation for the rookie — a respite meaningfully interrupted by his crew, whose hardened humanity is newly stressed and tested.

After Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington abused social atmosphere and moral complexity in Training Day, Ayer realized that most movie genres desensitize us — which is why he had to become a director himself. Ayer’s mission even emboldens Brad Pitt to correct the nonsense of Inglourious Basterds.

Fury’s other enlisted-men performances — particularly Shia Labeouf’s impassioned Biblical quotations, such as 1 John 2:15 make it special. Ayer’s action scenes give a sense of tragic space — the effect lost in the computer-game–comic-book-movie era that has helped inure audiences to combat and to patriotic duty. The recovery of this space — and these feelings — is a notable step forward, good enough to recall the virtues of Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron.

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Ayer’s effort to stir our contemporary war malaise shares an impulse with Diplomacy, Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of a French stage play by Cyril Gely. This dialogue between an SS general (Niels Arestrup) and a Swedish diplomat (Andre Dussolier) during Germany’s Occupation of France distils World War II conflict to philosophy. The two men debate Hitler’s order to destroy Parisian landmarks during the final phase of the war. Civilization itself is the essential topic. Away from the battlefield, Diplomacy raises less visceral concerns than does Fury. By coincidence, the film’s American premiere at New York’s Film Forum may appeal to the same pacifist crowd that, after 9/11, flocked to the outdated French Resistance movie Army of Shadows.

Middlebrow Schlondorff uses polite discussion as a carapace against the self-righteousness that makes so many contemporary filmmakers indifferent to the subject of war. Ayer’s temperament obviously contrasts with Schlondorff’s, but it’s also more immediate and daring.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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