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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.