Call me a buzzkill, but my enjoyment of war movies is nearly always clouded by the message. In my mind there are really only two valid routes to go: War Is Absurd (The Grand Illusion) or War Is Hell (Thin Red Line, The Hurt Locker.) That doesn’t mean they all need to be depressing — Inglourious Basterds certainly wasn’t. But it’s hard to imagine a good reason for them to be uplifting. That point where the music swells, as Mark Wahlberg or Tom Hanks cling to life in slow-mo, feels uncomfortable when I remember the hundred slow-mo-free deaths of cartoon villains it took to get there. Necessary evil or not, the asymmetry between protagonist (for whom we’re spoon-fed infinite reserves of empathy, whatever their flaws) and enemy (for whom, without drastic acts of goodness or the outright betrayal of their leaders, we’re given none) is troubling. It may be true to the characters and the emotions of war, and it may even be beautiful — but it’s hard to want to cheer. I can’t quite express what tone /would/ be appropriate: it’s humanism and nihilism side by side, and it’s complicated. War movies are hard to make, and I’m glad I don’t need to.
David Ayer probably didn’t need to make one either, but here we are. Fury tells the story of a young U.S. soldier (Logan Lerman) on the German front in the final days of World War 2, thrust into a tank commanded by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt). It started out as a seriously promising War Is Hell movie: years of warfare have hardened the crew to barbaric proportions, and life inside the tank seems insane to the innocent recruit. “We’re not here for right and wrong, we’re here to kill Krauts” says Wardaddy, and I was pretty sure the audience was supposed to be terrified of that sentiment. But somewhere along the way the film pivots from War Is Hell to Hell Yeah, and by the Rambo-ish finale it’s hard to know how to feel — it doesn’t come across as a tragedy (innocent recruit becomes hardened) but a coming-of-age story (innocent recruit becomes a man), and the tonal shift is ultra jarring. It could have been great: I thought it captured the claustrophobia of tank warfare extremely well, and the (phenomenal) cast kept the tension cranked to 11 the whole way through. But I’m not sure it had a point.