Tanks for the memories: Brad Pitt and crew in Fury, a misfiring mix of horror and schmaltz
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Belly of the beast: Brad Pitt’s new war movie veers from horror to schmaltz

For every stab at dirty realism in Fury, there is a sanitising touch to make everything clean again.

Fury (15)
dir: David Ayer

The move towards violent realism in war movies has been a gradual process, with advances represented by the likes of Soldier Blue (1970), about the US cavalry’s savage campaign against Native Americans, and Come and See (1985), set during the Nazi occupation of Belorussia. The graphic brutality of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) was confined mainly to its opening half-hour and had the unusual effect of giving a free pass to the clichés and sentimentality in the rest of the film. It was as if Spielberg was saying that we could have our comforting war movie only if we first endured, and kept in mind, the ugly, unvarnished version.

Fury seems initially to be striving for much the same effect. In the opening moments, a Nazi officer receives a knife in the eye and a broken neck. Both are gifts from Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), the commander of a Sherman tank rolling through Germany in the final months of the Second World War, wreaking havoc and rapidly running out of ammo (“Fury” is the word daubed on the tank’s gun barrel).

Squashed inside that creaking tin can are the four grunts under Wardaddy’s watch. One is fixing a mechanical problem; another pees in a bucket. The third, who wears a stunned expression, is holding hands with the fourth. The fourth has recently been relieved of his head.

That was the driver. When they reach camp, the men pick up his replacement, Norman (Logan Lerman), who looks barely old enough to be in charge of a pogo stick. If Norman is searching for a father figure, then he is in the right film, although what he gets is tough love. His first challenge is to shoot a cowering German prisoner. Wardaddy, who has proposed this execution, taunts Norman with slaps to the face and head that verge on the affectionate (he even grabs him in a terrible embrace) without losing their viciousness.

David Ayer (who wrote Training Day and wrote and directed End of Watch) keeps emphasising Wardaddy’s amoral edge, only to pull back and reassure us that he’s not that bad. “He may be crazier than a shithouse rat but I won’t fight with anyone else,” says Gordo (Michael Peña), practically misting up. Such mixed messages are confusing. It’s like being slapped in the face and then given a cuddle. This turns out to be Ayer’s philosophy of film-making.

For every stab at dirty realism in Fury, there is a sanitising touch to make everything clean again. It’s odd that so much research has gone into the logistics of working and living inside a tank (the five main cast members spent a night in there as part of their preparation) without much sense of confinement or claustrophobia reaching the screen. There was more clammy tension in two minutes of Lebanon, the gripping 2009 film set entirely inside an Israeli tank, than there is in the whole of Fury. Ayer lets too much fresh air into his movie: he keeps making pit stops for a plot-point or a character beat, a formative sexual experience here or a “You know what? You’re OK, kid!” speech there.

He has gone to some lengths to produce images that are both original and casually gruesome. It is common when starting a new job to find something left behind by the previous incumbent, but in Norman’s case it isn’t a cuddly toy that he discovers in his vacated workspace: it’s the skin from his predecessor’s face. There’s the slap again. The cuddle comes from Steven Price’s exalted score. Ayer is not the first director to undermine his own film yet it seems plain perverse for the images to tell us war is hell while the music says: “There, there.”

Fury is proof that a film can be technically accurate and dramatically bogus, well made but also not much cop. Sometimes it can be good and bad in the same scene. When the platoon storms a German town, Wardaddy and his men burst into an apartment where they are provided with food. Conversation gives way to a monologue that aspires to the eloquence of the USS Indianapolis speech in Jaws written by John Milius and delivered by Robert Shaw. Needless to say, it falls far short.

But, a few minutes earlier, Ayer has done something quite wonderful: he has staged a moment in which Wardaddy takes off his shirt to shave, revealing a back covered with scars from severe burns. It’s a clever touch, a backstory in both senses of the term yet without a word spoken. It hardly even matters that there are only two likely explanations for those burns: either Wardaddy was trapped in some sort of tank fire or Warmummy ironed his shirt without first removing it from his back. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era