Dir. David Ayer
After more than two decades in the biz as one of the few remaining stars in the dwindling Hollywood constellation, Brad Pitt has taken on an increasingly rare additional aura. Because he tends to take long bouts between projects — his last leading role, in World War Z, was 18 months ago — and because he has retained his stature as a true leading man, an extremely small cabal that includes Cruise, Denzel, and Pitt’s good friend Clooney, among others, a Brad Pitt movie takes on an additional sort of sheen: It becomes a Brad Pitt Event.
Fortunately, unlike some of his other peers, he has also used his exalted status to be quite scrupulous about the films he does make. More often than not, in addition to starring in them, he also serves as a producer, leading to a greater degree of artistic control for the filmmakers. It’s quite a cache, and one that Pitt does not generally take lightly.
As such, it should come as no surprise then, that his new WWII picture, written and directed by the accomplished David Ayer, takes on a bit of its own sort of mythic status. The story, which concerns a tank commander and his small, beaten-up crew trying to survive ever-increasingly difficult missions as the Allies push towards Berlin in the last throes of the war, teeters precariously on heavily-treaded ground, but manages to keep its wheels on through a particularly intense climax.
Ayer, a screenwriter-turned-director whose previous film End of Watch was an under-the-radar police flick set in L.A. that also worked surprisingly well despite its familiar-sounding material, has a way of drawing more out of standard Hollywood genres than you at first imagine. His character work is more refined, his plot points slightly more convoluted, but he also maximizes the skills and abilities of his cast. End of Watch starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as a couple of happily mismatched partners, cruising the streets of L.A. as they work through their various shenanigans and endlessly repetitive conversations together. They were friends in the truest sense of the word, and unlike so many other films that purport to do a similar thing, you actually believed those guys deeply cared about one another.
Ayer pulls a similar trick here. Pitt plays a Sgt. nicknamed “Wardaddy,” leading his fitful crew through their last missions together by the force of his command and his gritty resolve. As we meet them, just after one hellacious looking battle, they’ve lost one of their auxiliary gunners, leaving “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), a religious sort with a bushy punctuation mark of a mustache and Wardaddy’s lone confidant; “Gordo” (Peña), the rowdy Latino tank driver; and “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal), a redneck mechanic from Arkansas with bad teeth and a bit of a wild streak, as the lone survivors of their entire battalion. Returning to base, they pick up a wet-behind-the-ears recruit in Norman (Logan Lerman), a kid so fresh to the frontlines they don’t even have a nickname for him yet.
Over the course of things, the team, immediately dispatched back in the field, convoy with another group of tanks to clear out a nearby town, watch approvingly as Wardaddy forces Norman to forego his ethical morality and learn how to kill quickly and without remorse, take in a leisurely, almost pleasant dinner interlude with a German woman (Annamaria Marinca) and her fetching young cousin (Alicia von Rittberg), and eventually find themselves in the fight of their lives at a crossroads deep in enemy territory against a seemingly insurmountable number of SS troops.
While Ayer’s film dutifully follows in the footsteps of the high-prestige war drama — echoes abound from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, among others — he does have a way of making just enough alterations and mildly surprising diversions to make it something more uniquely his. The dinner interlude — which starts out with Norman and Wardaddy sharing their eggs, and affections, with the German women before being rudely interrupted by the rest of the team, drunk and bitter at being left out — has a curious pace all to its own. By the time the three other men barge in and start making a mess, you feel the consternation of their foul-mouthed, drunken banter, forcing their way in where they were very much not wanted.
Ayer also has absolutely no problem bringing us the true horror of armed conflict, where bodies become hunks of ravaged meat under a barrage of mortar shells and tank treads. At times, this proclivity becomes something a bit closer to indulgence (tanks running over bodies pressed down into the muck, more than one head torn off the shoulders and forcibly detonated), but it does serve to grip you even more tightly into your seat, not affording you the luxury of being able to pull away from its depiction of savagery.
Pitt, for his part, is more or less recreating the Lt. Aldo Raine bit from Inglourious Basterds, down to his cocksure southern lilt, and his undying hatred of the Nazis. It’s a good role for him, but the real showcase here is Lerman, who imbibes his babe-in-the-woods character with just enough common decency and incredulousness to work as a stand-in for the rest of us who have never had to experience the horror of this experience (returning to Private Ryan, he’s the Corporal Upham character, minus most of Jeremy Davies nervous tics).
So, if the film falls prey to a few of the more standard tropes — the loss of innocence, the horror of war, the ludicrousness of military protocols in contrast to the courageous of its participants — it has enough else working through its cannons that it still leaves a heavy amount of shrapnel in your guts by the time the end credits roll. Pitt, the eventful Hollywood star, soldiers on.