The opening shots of Fury, with a horse trotting through charred landscape and meeting up with Brad Pitt, bring to mind two distinctive and incompatible-seeming war movies of recent vintage: Spielberg’s War Horse and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Unlikely influences, but good company; when I heard that David Ayer, committed chronicler of sweaty cops (including his work as the writer of Training Day, noted in at least two trailers per year) was mounting a WWII tank movie, I figured it would, at very least, be a clear auteurist undertaking, even if it was unlikely to actually somehow star Los Angeles cops—and equally unlikely to match the technical bravado of either Spielberg or Tarantino (especially the latter, whose Basterds is arguably his best film, or close to it). And there are certainly Ayer-tastic touches in Fury: the tense, forced, close-quarters male bonding that goes on in his five-man tank crew is a darker cousin to the camaraderie in End of Watch, his best film so far—and he’s never shied away from moral ambiguities in the shadow of violence.
But for the most part, Fury is an old-fashioned war movie—not in the sense that it employs rah-rah jingoism, particularly, but in its lack of reflection about war beyond what’s right in front of it. Yet it doesn’t qualify as a straightforward action movie, either, because the tank has no particular mission. Ayer throws in a couple of cursory scenes where Pitt receives marching orders, but they don’t have much depth beyond: drive the track this way and kill any Nazis you see. This is probably realistic in some sense, but it’s not particularly compelling. It also falls back on war-movie tropes in telling the story of a new, inexperienced soldier (Logan Lerman) adjusting to harrowing tank life with his more seasoned brothers in arms (Pitt, End of Watch‘s Pena, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal)—and manning up, of course. It’s essentially a feature-length redo of the Jeremy Davies subplot from Saving Private Ryan, jacked up to Ayer extremes where Lerman must man up and learn to kill indiscriminately. Again, probably not unrealistic; also not especially interesting to watch.
Sometimes the movie’s aimlessness actually lends it some unpredictability. Mid-movie, the crew occupies a German town, and Pitt, with Lerman in tow, invites himself into the apartment of two German women. One of them takes a liking to Lerman; then the other soldiers show up, drunk and abusive. The sequence continues, uncomfortably, for a large portion of the film (at least fifteen minutes), like something out of Tarantino’s Basterds with the vague threat of rape or other violence hanging over it, rather than Tarantino’s dialogue-based screw-tightening. All five men turn opaque: Pitt gets annoyed at his men’s interruption, but doesn’t exactly stop them; Lerman’s immediate affection for one of the German women seems suspect; and the other soldiers don’t seem to know what, exactly, they want out of this situation. No matter: it amounts to very little. After the scene finally ends, Ayer reduces it to a postscript to serve as a cheap emotional beat for Lerman’s character.
Try as it might for intimacy in certain scenes, the movie wants to go bigger, and Ayer mounts a war movie of impressive scale, even confined to a small team crushed into a relatively tiny space. The camera’s pans take in masses of bodies: fields of surrendering Germans, camps teaming with U.S. soldiers, battlefields piled with corpses, or combinations of the three. The five men often face wave after wave of enemy combatants as they roll through Germany, including a final stand that makes more sense as an action blowout than as drama. Because the movie so downplays its objectives, five men against hundreds comes off like a principled stand against, well, ze Germans. Not every battle represents a crucial turning point, but Fury sacrifices its characters mainly because that’s what happens to characters in war movies. Ayer knows his way around an exciting firefight; he seems to think any additional conversation will turn up naturally from there. Or maybe just wants to make a kick-ass tank movie that also takes itself pretty seriously.
Camp X-Ray takes itself seriously in a more earnest sort of way; it wants very much to be part of a conversation about war. It opens on footage of the World Trade Center in flames before the camera pulls back to reveal a TV in what looks like a foreign country. Moments later, soldiers burst in and the television’s owner is bagged and dragged away. As the opening sequence continues, it makes great, efficient jumps to bring this man from his home into Guantanamo Bay imprisonment: airplane, bus, hallway, cell. Done and done.
We next see the detainee, whose name is Ali (Peyman Moaadi), years later, when a soldier (Kristen Stewart) arrives at Gitmo for training as a guard, which includes both emergency responses to prisoners acting up or threatening suicide, as well as more everyday matters like the cafeteria (“like most places on Earth, the chicken fingers are safe”). Going mad and insisting on his innocence (which is, if not a given, never really questioned), Ali yammers at his new guard, goading her into conversation. Eventually, she relents and talks back.
I’ve heard Camp X-Ray described as a Gitmo romance, but it’s not, really: the soldier and the prisoner form, at best, a fleeting if tender sort of friendship. The movie has to make a few leaps for this to happen—does the early scene where the prisoner throws shit at the guard count as a geopolitical version of negging? But the movie sells their relationship through their small talk, about time-killers like Harry Potter and Sodoku, before moving on to heavier things. Some of the movie’s more soldier-centric dialogue rattles around, trying to capture both the way these characters might talk and the Important Issues they represent, but the filmmaking by writer-director Peter Sattler is assured. In the first sustained conversation between prisoner and soldier, the camera follows the circle Stewart makes around her assigned hallway, Moaddi’s voice on the soundtrack like a narrator.
It’s amazing how Stewart’s star presence and acting chops both blossom when removed from a fantastical context, even one as low-rent as the Twilight series (she was miscast, or at least misused, in her Snow White movie, too). Here she overdoes her stammering consternation in a couple of high-pressure scenes; she’s more effective at depicting her character’s turmoil than verbalizing it. But she’s empathetic and believable as a conflicted soldier, whose full name we don’t learn until the prisoner does. It’s this kind of subtle touch that keeps Camp X-Ray from falling flat, when it has every opportunity to do so. Sattler’s film may have more traditional lessons of understanding to impart than Fury, but its quiet ending has a power that Ayer’s steamrolling tank ultimately lacks.