A Light in the Darkness

Winston Spencer Churchill was a pivotal character in 20th Century Western history. He’s been the subject of many volumes of biography along with movies and TV series, and rightly so since he was involved in much of what happened in the first half of the past century. Throughout that time, though, he was also a controversial personality who often made mistakes, failed at endeavors, and was seen as a self-promoter. He flipped party affiliation twice, and by 1929 he was pushed out of the party leadership. Churchill spent a decade in what has come to be known as “The Wilderness Years.” In retrospect, those years out of power were vital. He wasn’t tainted by the appeasement policies towards Hitler pursued by England during the 1930s, and many military officers and civil servants fed him information on how woefully unprepared for war the British were at that point. His sharp questions in the House of Commons helped force the government to start those preparations. After war broke out in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was forced to give Churchill a place in the cabinet as the First Lord of the Admiralty, a position Churchill held in WWI. But Winston had to wait until May 10th of 1940 to take over as Prime Minister, within hours of the Blitzkrieg of Western Europe by the Germans beginning. Joe Wright’s portrait of Winston’s first weeks as PM, from his ascension to Prime Minister to his “We Shall Fight” speech following Dunkirk, shows it truly was the Darkest Hour of the war.

Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) had wanted Lord Halifax (Stephan Dillane) to replace him after he was forced to resign, but Halifax refuses. Instead Chamberlain recommends to King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) that Churchill be asked to form a government. Neither is happy about it. Chamberlain doesn’t trust Churchill, and George hasn’t forgiven Churchill’s support of his brother, Edward VIII, during the Wallis Simpson affair. But as a constitutional monarch, he has little choice but to summon Churchill.

At the time Churchill (Gary Oldman) is at Chartwell, his home outside of London. A new secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) is brought in to help Churchill, but his harsh and demanding demeanor make her ready to walk out that day. Winston’s wife, Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), takes him to task over his boorish behavior. Layton is in the driveway, ready to leave, when a motorcycle messenger arrives from Buckingham Palace. Instead she turns around and delivers the note summoning Churchill to an audience with George – and she remains with Churchill as he takes on the responsibility of Prime Minister.

The film is anchored by a tour de force performance by Gary Oldman as Churchill. Oldman looks nothing like Winston, and had to go through a couple of hours in make-up where prosthetics were applied. However, the actor submerges himself in the role, capturing his voice and mannerisms perfectly. After his recent win at the Golden Globes, Oldman is easily the front runner for best actor honors throughout this award season.

Oldman is ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially by James, Scott Thomas, and Mendelsohn. James’ character functions to give the audience an entry into Churchill’s world and the Cabinet War Rooms, and James manages to do that while still presenting a realistic characterization. (Layton, whose married name was Nel, was a real person who served as one of Churchill’s secretaries; she was the last surviving one, passing away at age 90 in 2007.) Scott Thomas embodies the refined steel of Clementine, the one person who could exercise some control over Winston. Special kudos to Mendelsohn’s version of George VI, since he goes for a more subtle performance than Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning take. The speech impediment is there if you listen, but what comes through is George’s decency and sense of duty, especially in a scene late in the movie between Mendelsohn and Oldman.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten focuses the story so that even if you’re unaware of the history of that chapter in Churchill’s life, you can still understand what’s happening. While they’re completely different in tone, Darkest Hour adds context to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Wright overall does a good job bringing the script to life, though he leans a bit too much on bomb-site visuals that are more showy than illuminative. But that’s a small quibble.

In the end Darkest Hour hangs on Oldman’s portrayal, and he delivers a truly riveting performance that rings true down to the smallest gesture. He definitely deserves Oscar gold for this role.


On The Beach

It’s surprising that the evacuation of Dunkirk has not been the subject of a film prior to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. It’s been touched on in other films, such as Atonement, but it’s never been the focus. Part of the problem is the story doesn’t fit the “Rah-rah, we’re gonna win” mentality of most World War II films. Even with the few made during the war years that dealt with defeats, such as They Were Expendable, Bataan, and Wake Island, were designed to motivate because of the sacrifice of the characters. The greatest US defeat, Pearl Harbor, has been filmed twice for the big screen, first in the interesting but uneven Tora Tora Tora, and then in Michael Bay’s over-stuffed mish mash Pearl Harbor. In each, the loss becomes the starting point for winning. Tora Tora Tora ends with Admiral Yamamoto’s quote that he feared all they’d done was awaken the slumbering giant. Bay extends his movie to include the Dewey raid on Tokyo months after Pearl Harbor, though the story of that raid was done better in 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Dunkirk doesn’t fit neatly into that narrative. The British army was swept back to the ocean’s edge by the German blitzkrieg, and suffered around 100,000 casualties or troops captured. Yet the British pulled off the astonishing achievement of rescuing over 300,000 troops off the beach. Even greater, the salvation of the Army was pulled off by private citizens who answered the call to pilot their small ships across the treacherous English Channel. While it went the other way, it was an accomplishment on par with D-Day, and in fact there likely wouldn’t have been a D-Day without Dunkirk. What shaped up to be an inglorious defeat that arguably would have led to a German invasion of Great Britain, was instead turned into a miracle.

Nolan has created a lean feature with a running time of an hour and forty-six minutes, and like his first success, Memento, it plays with time. He focuses on three stories that intertwine, even though one plays out over the course of a week, the second in a day, and the third in an hour. Eventually, all the stories come together.

The movie begins with the week-long story of the trapped soldiers. A group of British stragglers walks through the streets of Dunkirk as leaflets drop from the sky, proclaiming them surrounded. Then German snipers open up. One of the group, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) makes it over a gate and climbs to the next street where he reaches the French defensive lines. From there he wanders down to the beach, a wide expanse filled with English soldiers. German dive bombers regularly scream down upon the troops and attack transports that attempt to rescue the soldiers. Tommy meets Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and wordlessly forms a team with him. The officers in charge on the beach, Naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Army Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), fear they can’t even save a tenth of the troops.

In England, the day comes to activate a plan to mobilize small pleasure boats to sail to France. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) loads stacks of life preservers onto his cabin cruiser with the help of his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and another local lad, George (Barry Keoghan). At the last moment, George jumps on board to accompany the Dawsons, saying he can be of help. What they’re heading toward is soon brought home when they come upon the stern of a sunken ship bobbing in the water with a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) sitting alone on it.

In the air, a flight of three Spitfires head to Dunkirk where they’ll only have enough petrol left in their tanks to fight for one hour. One soon becomes the victim of a German fighter, but the other two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), try to provide air cover for the ships rescuing the soldiers.

Nolan has meticulously researched the battle and the rescue operation, and while he purposefully didn’t seek to reproduce photographic images of the battle, he gets the details right. It helped that a majority of the movie was filmed on the actual Dunkirk beach. Nolan also used Spitfires left from the Battle of Britain in the aerial sequences, and a number of the small boats rescuing the soldiers in the movie were part of the evacuation 77 years ago.

Nolan also cast the movie to match the soldiers pictured from those days. Fionn Whitehead was eighteen years old when the film was shot and hadn’t been in front of a movie camera before. He gives an exceptional performance with very little dialog; Nolan wanted images to tell the story more than words. In the same way, Mark Rylance’s quiet heroism stands in for all those who answered the call to help. He’s straightforward without pretentiousness, but he also knows a compassionate lie can show mercy.

I read a story today of a 97-year-old veteran of the battle who saw the film at a theater near his home in Canada. He attended wearing a jacket and tie, mirroring Mark Rylance’s costume in the film. He wore his Army beret, and his medals from the war were pinned to his jacket. The veteran had tears in his eyes after the film. “It was like I was there again…I could see my old friends again.”

That’s the best endorsement a historical film could ask for.

The Rule On Gold

I’d missed Woman in Gold when it was released in 2015. It disappeared from the theaters in my area so rapidly I missed my chance. The film did make $33 Million in the US. That’s a flop for a Hollywood picture, but the BBC Films production was made on a budget of only $11 Million so it was a financial success. It has now come to Netflix so I finally got the chance to see it.

The theft of art treasures by the Nazis during World War II has been covered before. In 1964 John Frankenheimer directed The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, about the French Resistance trying to stop a train headed to Germany loaded with art treasures. More recently there was George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a fictionalized story based on the special Allied force set up to recover and return art treasures that had been looted. What separates Woman in Gold is that it’s a true story where what happened after the war is as injust as what happened during the Nazi period. It also focuses mainly on one family and one masterpiece, and the fight to return it to the rightful owner.

When her sister dies, octogenarian Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) discovers paperwork that reveals her sibling tried to recover a painting taken during the war. Since then the canvas was on display in Austria’s national gallery, housed in the Belvedere Palace. The Gustav Klimt painting is correctly titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” though it is nicknamed “The Woman In Gold” because of Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf for the portrait. (The “I” at the end of the title is because Klimt did two portraits of Bloch-Bauer, the only time he ever painted the same model twice.) To Maria, though, the portrait was her Aunt Adele, who was like a second mother to Maria and her sister until Adele’s untimely death from meningitis in 1925. Maria has lived in Southern California ever since she and her husband escaped from Austria shortly before the war. Through another ex-pat, she’s put in contact with attorney Randy Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds). Randy has his own connection to Austria, as his grandfather was composer Arnold Schoenburg who developed the 12-tone form of composition. Schoenburg had left Europe in 1934 following Hilter’s ascension to power, eventually settling in California and teaching at UCLA. Randy learns Austria has recently formed a reparations panel to deal with looted pieces of art, but the state is loath to let go of the painting, a certified masterpiece that’s viewed as an Austrian treasure.

The movie moves through three periods. There are a few scenes of Maria as a child interacting with Adele, but the main contrast to the modern day story is Maria as a young woman and new bride at the time of Austria’s annexation into the German Reich in 1938. Maria is played at that time by Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black.” Adele’s husband, Maria’s uncle, is more clear-eyed about the threat of Hitler than the rest of the Viennese Jewish community and escapes to Zurich. After the Anschluss travel is forbidden for Jews and the laws that would eventually lead to the Holocaust are put in place. The contrast is set with the older Maria having to return to Austria to pursue her claim while the younger Maria must find a way to escape her homeland.

Besides the main characters, the movie has a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles. A key ally for Maria and Randy is Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl. Czernin was an investigative reporter in Vienna who helped expose the Nazi past of Austrian President and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Randy’s wife Pam is played by Katie Holmes, and the film also features Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, and Elizabeth McGovern.

As always, Mirren is a delight to watch on the screen with her deft touch in characterization. She’s like a wine that grows in subtle flavor as it ages. Reynolds holds his own with Mirren. He’s known in particular for comedy, especially after the success of Deadpool, but he can handle the less showy, more complex roles just as well. It took me a while to realize I was watching Maslany, even though I’ve been a fan of Orphan Black since the beginning. She disappears into roles, but you can see the Maria that Mirren portrays clearly in Maslany’s performance.

The film was directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) from a script by first-time screenwriter Alei Kaye Campbell, who’d mostly worked as an actor before this. Credit’s also given to the real life Maria Altmann and E. Randol (Randy) Schoenburg for their lives as basis for the screenplay, which is unusual but makes perfect sense once you see the movie.

Woman in Gold may not have been more successful since people thought of it as a Holocaust story. Last year’s Denial with Rachel Weisz, which dealt with Holocaust denial, made $4 Million on about the same budget as Gold. But Gold is equal parts legal thriller and escape story, and it is well worth a viewing on Netflix or in any other way available.

A Cut Above Performance

Sometimes it takes a while for the film world to find historical stories that should have been told years ago. Two recent examples came out in 2014, seventy years after the events: The Imitation Game with the story of Alan Turning, who helped create the computer revolution with his work during WWII but who was destroyed because of his homosexuality; and Unbroken, with Louis Zamperini’s experiences at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and as a POW in Japan during WWII. Now another fascinating story from WWII is finally being told in Hacksaw Ridge: the story of a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor.

Desmond Doss was a Virginia farm boy who, because of his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs as well as experiences when he was young, refused to carry a weapon. However, he felt convicted to help in the war effort, and became an Army medic. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss was credited with saving 75 soldiers who were injured during a battle on top of the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge.

That’s the nuts-and-bolts of the story, but how they’re assembled is important. Director Mel Gibson has done thrilling war stories as a director and actor, such as Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, and the war scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are effective. There’ve also been times when he’s compromised on history, especially in Braveheart where you have the Battle of Stirling Bridge take place without the bridge, which was central to the Scottish strategy. (Having Robert the Bruce consort with William Wallace even though they lived a century apart more properly is the fault of the screenwriter.) In Hacksaw Ridge Gibson, working from a script by Robert Schenkkan (who wrote several episodes of HBO’s The Pacific) and Andrew Knight, exaggerates some parts of the story while underplaying others, including some aspects of Doss’s heroism. For instance, the story presents Doss’s participation on Okinawa as his first experience of war, where he’d actually been in combat on several islands over the course of a couple of years before Okinawa. From here on I’ll focus on the movie itself, but the website History vs. Hollywood has done an excellent breakdown of what the movie gets wrong, as well as what it gets right. Warning: it is, of course, full of spoilers.

Hacksaw Ridge breaks down into three acts. In Act I we’re introduced to Doss (Andrew Garfield), a poor farm boy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia. Doss’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is a veteran of the First World War, an experience that left him a broken alcoholic with a propensity for violence, often focused on his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Living with that violence along with his deep faith leads to Doss’s decision not to take up arms. By accident he meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a young nurse at the local hospital, and proceeds to woo her. But the coming of the war interferes with their courtship. Act II covers Doss’s basic training, where his refusal to take up arms leads to constant conflict with his commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and his trainer Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). Act III covers the fight on Okinawa, which was one of the most violent of the war because the island was considered Japanese soil. The Japanese suffered over a hundred thousand casualties, including boys as young as fourteen who were used as suicide bombers against tanks. It’s believe the experience during the 84 day campaign, which cost nearly 20,000 US lives, was a major factor in Truman’s decision to use the A-Bomb to end the war.

What elevates the movie from simply an effective war story to a deeply powerful and thrilling experience is the performance of Garfield as Doss. His recent outings as Spider-Man were not high quality acting experiences, but with Doss Garfield fulfills the promise that was seen in his first major role as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. Garfield makes Doss’s convictions not only understandable but completely believable. The convictions cost him dearly, as shown in the film, but he has the audience rooting for Doss to make it.

Weaving, Palmer, and Worthington all turn in sterling performances. Vince Vaughn, though, rises to the top with the best dramatic performance of his career. His Howell is the sharpening stone to Garfield’s steel, and the sparks that fly between them grab your attention and won’t let it go. It’s also through Vaughn that you first see the grudging respect and eventually full-fledge honor for Doss by his comrades.

While Okinawa is only a third of the film, Gibson pulls out the stops in the portrayal of the violence. It is not for the fainthearted, and some scenes, while accurate for the war, are extremely disturbing. Still, that makes the contrast to Doss’s position stronger. What brings home the reality even more, though, is the end of the movie that features clips of the real Doss talking about his experience on Hacksaw Ridge shortly before his death in 2006. Garfield’s performance squares perfectly with the real man, and that is an accomplishment.

Belated Honor

In the 1970s, in books such as “The Ultra Secret” and “Bodyguard of Lies,” the greatest secret of World War II was revealed – the Allies had broken the supposedly unbreakable German code Enigma. Enigma was a mechanical encoding/decoding machine that was the size of a portable typewriter. When the key code for the day was set, operators could type in the letters of a message and it would generate replacement letters on a lighted display. When the message was received, the operator there would type the coded letters into their Enigma machine and it would display the actual letters of the message. With options in the billions, it would take codebreakers searching manually for the right key code over a hundred years to find it. Since the codes were changed daily, the German High Command was justified in thinking the code was unbreakable. Now the movie The Imitation Game tells the story of the men (and woman) who broke the code, and the tragic final chapter of the man responsible for the breakthrough as well as for much of the technology we now use daily – Alan Turing.

Turing was a mathematician, logician and cryptographer who developed much of the computer theory needed for the machines. He formalized the concept of algorithm and computation, and developed the idea of the “Turing machine” that could mimic the work of other machines. The paper he wrote on that subject was titled “The Imitation Game.” Today most everyone’s life is touched by digital computers, but it was radical science back in the 1930s. When the war broke out in 1939, Britain had a secret outpost located in Bletchley Park where the finest cryptographers in the country were trying to break the German codes. Turing joined the group and soon realized men would never break Enigma. Their only hope was to create from scratch a working version of the Turing machine that could work the code infinitely faster than humans.

After the war, Turing taught at the University of Manchester. It was there in the 1950s that he was arrested for being a homosexual, the same charge that was brought against Oscar Wilde decades earlier. The arrest and conviction destroyed Turing’s life, a sad end for the man whose work shortened the war by years and saved millions of lives. None of that, though, could be said in his defense; his work at Bletchley remained secret for years.

The Imitation Game recreates the time in glorious detail. While the sparkling script by Graham Moore, based on Alan Hodges’ book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” does take some liberties with the story, it gets the main points right and it finally gives Turing his due. The production was fortunate to have Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Turing, as he gives a towering performance as the awkward, socially-maladroit mathematician, yet still makes him sympathetic. At the Golden Globes, Colin Firth joked that he was interested in doing the role, but the producers decided to wait until Cumberbatch was born. In truth, it’s hard to conceive of another actor who could have pulled off the role with the accomplishment of Cumberbatch.

He’s aided by an excellent supporting cast, including Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke, a brilliant female mathematician at a time when the field was the province of men only. Charles Dance (most recently Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones”) plays the head of Bletchley Park, and Mark Strong is excellent as Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6 from 1939 to 1952. Some think that Menzies was the basis for Ian Fleming’s M, although there are other candidates for that distinction.

This is the first English-language film for Director Morten Tyldum, who has worked mostly in his native Norway. In his hands the movie plays out like a riveting thriller that captures the distrust among countries who were allies during the war but who knew that would change once Hitler was defeated. The production design by Maria Djurkovic (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Mama Mia) is outstanding, as is Oscar Faura’s cinematography.

Colin Firth’s comment at the Golden Globes touched on another aspect of the movie. The script for The Imitation Game sat unproduced for several years. It was voted the best unproduced movie script in 2011. Now honor has belatedly come to the man that Churchill said made the single greatest contribution to the British war effort.

The Long Run

One of the most durable and prestigious genres in film is the biopic. The Story of Louis Pasteur, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Patton, Funny Girl, Coal Miner’s Daughter, My Left Foot, Boys Don’t Cry, Erin Brockovich, Capote and most recently Lincoln all yielded Oscar Gold for actors. (And there are still people upset that Raging Bull isn’t on that list.)  Other biopics have tugged at our heartstrings: Pride of the Yankees can still cause even a Boston Red Sox fan to shed a tear at the end, and it’s hard for music lovers not to get choked up at the end of The Glenn Miller Story. It would be easy to list a hundred lesser biopics that have played in theaters over the years. The newest addition to the list, Unbroken, may not capture gold at the Oscars, but it’s a worthy example of the genre.

The movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book that has spent 4 years on the NY Times bestseller list. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a boy from Torrance, California who was well on his way to becoming a delinquent in his early teen years. Louis’ life was turned around when he focused himself on running on the track instead of running from the police, and he was eventually chosen for the 1936 US Olympic team that competed in Berlin. Those games belonged to Jesse Owens, but it was viewed as a tune-up for Zamperini who would then play a major part in the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo.

The outbreak of World War II canceled those games. After Pearl Harbor, Louis joined the Army Air Corps as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific Theater. While on a mission, the plane had to ditch in the ocean and only 3 of the crew made it out alive, with Louis among them. Louis survived for over 50 days at sea, an incredible accomplishment in itself, but then the survivors were found by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as POWs in Japan.

That all is given away in the trailer, since you don’t see a biopic because of the plot twists. It is how the story is presented as well as the main actor’s performance that drives the box office. Angelina Jolie, in her sophomore directing effort, takes a straightforward approach that’s more in line with the biopics of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s not a bad thing. The opening sequence, where Louis’ plane is part of a large raid on a Japanese manufacturing target, is one of the more intense bombing scenes ever put on film. The B-24 was notoriously for its light constructed, which was good for its operating ceiling and range, but bad for the crew when enemy fighters were around. It was one reason among several that the plane was nicknamed the “Flying Coffin.” From that beginning the story of Louis before the war is told through a couple of extensive flashbacks.

The majority of the film focuses on Louis’ survival in shark-infested waters (including one scene that could be titled “turnabout is fair play”) and the even more horrific time spent as a Japanese POW, during which he was singled out by the camp’s commander for physical torture. In this, Jolie is assisted by her lead actor Jack O’Connell. The 24-year-old was an unknown outside his native England before he was cast, but he brings to the role an intensity similar to Tom Hardy or a young Al Pacino before he started chewing the scenery in almost every film.

The film also benefits from Takamasa Ishihara’s performance as Watanabe, the sadistic camp commander who is nicknamed “The Bird” by the inmates. When Louis asks why they gave him that nickname, the other inmates explain that the English-speaking Watanabe listens to their conversations, and if he heard what they really wanted to call him he’d kill them. Ishihara’s actually a rock star in Japan, and this is only his second film role. He carries it off with a quiet intensity that is all the more frightening. What begins as a physical battle between the two morphs over the course of the film into a psychological war.

The adaption of the book boasts some unusual suspects, in that Joel and Ethan Coen were two of the four writers who worked on the script. While it’s nowhere near the off-beat film you’d expect from the Coen brothers, you can see their touch throughout the movie. The other screenwriters who contributed to the movie were Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer) and William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables).

This was a story long in coming to the screen – Universal had bought the rights back 1957 – but thanks to the success of the book, it finally made. Louis passed away earlier this year, though not before Jolie screened a rough cut of the film for him on her laptop in his hospital room. That’s fitting. In the end, Louis Zamperini’s story transcends the historical and becomes a spiritual one, and that’s where its power lies – not in the broad panorama of history and war, but in the personal determination to remain unbroken.


Tanks? No, Tanks.

Writer/director David Ayer likes things gritty. With crime dramas like the original The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, and Dark Blue, scripts he wrote, and Harsh Times that he wrote and directed, he focused on the mean streets of South-Central LA and populated them with criminals and rogue cops who weren’t any better. He ended up making the excellent slice of police life End of Watch as an apology to cops for his earlier movies. His first produced screenplay, though, was U-571, a WWII story about a mission to capture the German Navy’s version of the Enigma code machine. It had Matthew McConaughey being schooled by hard-edge sub skipper Bill Paxton that to be ready to command a sub, he had to be ready to send men to their deaths. (The film was notable mostly for re-writing history, since it was a British mission that captured an Enigma machine.) Now Ayer returns to WWII with Fury.

Ayer is aiming for Saving Private Ryan significance, but instead he winds up in the neighborhood of The Dirty Dozen with a bit of Kelly’s Heroes thrown in, without the comedic element of those two movies. Fury tells the story of a Sherman tank crew that has almost made it intact all the way through the war. It’s now April,1945, and the Allies are pushing deep into Germany. The war will be over in a month. Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is in command of the tank called “Fury” with a crew of Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady “Coon-ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). In an action just before the movie starts, the crew has its first casualty when the front machine-gunner is killed. The movie does show a fair amount of gore, so it can thank Ryan for its realistic portrayal of what can happen to a body in a battle, though strangely near the end of the movie death is shown with in the pristine version of war movies from the 1940s.

Into the crew is thrust a replacement with no training. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is a clerk, fresh from boot camp, when he is detached from his unit to be the crew’s new gunner. It’s obvious Ayer wanted a Corporal Upham character, the role played by Jeremy Davis in Ryan, but does it in a way that strains credulity. The US Army didn’t skimp on training and would not have assigned someone like Ellison to a tank crew. They weren’t in the position of the Wehrmacht at the end of the war, having to draft schoolchildren and pensioners to fight. But Ayer wanted to show Ellison’s transformation under the almost psychotic “hard love” of Wardaddy from a callow youth into a trained killer.

There are some good parts of the movie. It does do a decent job showing how a tank crew works and gives a realistic feel for being in action in a tank. A scene where four Sherman tanks, which had notoriously light armor, take on a heavily armored German Panzer provides a view of battle strategy, and the cost involved. On the negative side are two scenes where POWs are summarily executed, which would have got those involved courtmartialed and sent to the stockade (where they could have been recruited for The Dirty Dozen). There’s also a scene that could have been a good emotional moment, similar to the pause before the final battle in Ryan, but Ayer’s heavy hand turns it into obvious manipulation. In the climactic battle, he also has a German toss a grenade with the longest fuse ever manufactured.

Pitt manages to make Wardaddy sympathetic, though the other characters are more caricatures and don’t really go below the surface bluster. Lerman plays a character who’s out of his depth, but that could also go for the actor. He did good work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but his role here is written as an archtype, not a realistic character.

Fury is the spiritual child of the B movies made during WWII, without their immediacy in relationship to the war. It doesn’t translate to a commentary on current warfare; if you want that, rent Lone Survivor or The Hurt Locker. So the real question that runs through your head while watching Fury is, why was this made?

Ayer may need to make another war movie, as an apology to servicemen this time.