Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle (with fuzzy corners)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Great 70s WarDads: Brad Pitt in FURY and WORLD WAR Z

I started writing this post a few months ago during the 2014 Golden Globes, prepared for the usual mawkish acceptance speeches and self-congratulatory montages, but I was shocked instead by how much blubbering was occurring over, of all things, kids. On and on these winners went about how they love their kids, how their kids are shining stars that transport them safely across the deserts of artistic blocks and emotional meltdowns and give their lives' meaning.

It was appalling.

Sure, I'm being a curmudgeon, but I have nothing against the kids themselves. I feel for them. Imagine being one of the children of those Globe winners, staying over at a slumber party and everyone's watching of course on TV and noticing your dad is a wussy crybaby who's totally bound to you hand and foot. Christ, I would have packed my sleeping bag and bailed on the spot. Kids have honor, a code! In order to grow into decent human beings these kids need to know dad isn't going to fall apart on them, crying and clinging and making them fight for every second of privacy. They want to know that they can move out one day and dad will sigh in relief rather than whine and cling and cry. Maybe he can thank someone else for a change, someone like Brad Pitt, who showed him the way a great 70s dad behaves, and set that dad aright. 

The Pitt-staring 2013 zombie disaster film World War Z can help in this regard. It may be the first film to actively redress the Dads of Great Adventure complex that's befouled our decade's disaster movies. You know the type: the widowed, divorced or absentee workaholic/slacker dads who wind up with custody of the kids during the apocalypse because it strikes on the weekend and who spend the movie trying to return said kids to the upscale hottie mom and the bland moneyed stepdad who's everything the usually absentee dad is not.

As the non-absentee and still married Gerry Lane in Z, Brad seems to be actively healing the Dad of Great Adventure rift. Competent and responsible for the world outside his immediate family as well as for said family, all under his watch are taken care of, all without any over-protecting, sanctimoniously belittling, clinging, or simpering (or on the other side, ignoring, spacing, procrastinating, stalling). Pitt's professional compassion exonerates him from the usual sense of proximal guilt that trips up rubes like Cage in Knowing, Viggo in The Road, Cruise in War of the Worlds and Cusak in 2012. More than all of them, World War Z makes a genuine manly effort to show male viewers a kind of post-Fight Club code they can live by without feeling like second class citizens in their own home. Gerry Lane and family (including urchin collected en route) are choppered off to an aircraft carrier packed with refugees so UN troubleshooter Lane can jet off to help a doctor locate Patient Zero. His global nation-hopping journey takes him from South Korea to Israel to a remote medical testing facility in Wales, and finally to a refugee camp in the one place savvy doomsday preppers have eyeballed since 1999 as the place to be in a crisis, Nova Scotia.

The real-life world-savin' pair of Jolie and Pitt got started on their global betterment tour when Jolie starred in Beyond Borders. As if continuing that film's message, Brad's UN agent has already survived in some of the most harrowing third world hotspots. so the disasters of this zombie plague don't stress him out the way they do other dads. He has a strong, supportive wife, two glowing children, and great fun family rapport. Over the course of the movie these kids and wife are never really in danger, or at any rate, they don't panic because they trust in their heavenly-faced father. We sense that-- even when the zombie spittle is flying fast and furious--no harm will come to them. In fact those who stay super close to Pitt miraculously survive even as everyone else around them are infected and/or dead. The concern is solely as to where and how Pitt's UN semi-unfazable superdad will solve the zombie problem, not if.

One of the tricks his Lane knows that the earlier dads of great adventure never mastered: triage. While fleeing he regularly makes eye contact with people being bitten and devoured but refrains from stopping to help them. You can imagine a lesser dad shouting 'somebody do something!' every time he sees a lost kid in a corner, but not Brad. He knows when to cut and run to save someone else another day. There's something reassuring about how Lane's status with the UN gets him driven all around the world without need for check-in or bag search. His ability to think global and survive rather than thinking local and dying, is what earns him this first class status.

On the other hand, telling moments in Z reveal a savvy about the proximal responsibility issue: the grateful singing of the Palestinians being let into Israel to avoid the plague excites the zombies and drives them over the impregnable wall; the one moment of true Brad danger comes when his wife's phone call rings as he's trying to sneak around sleeping zombies. This is a movie that knows how any glimmer of empathy, proximal responsibility, etc. can set off a chain reaction. Only Brad's compassionate but survival-based mojo manages to know when to run in true triage fashion.

Fury (2014) finds "Wardaddy" (Pitt) not saving the world per se, but blasting the hell out of the German homeland defenses with a tank crew of uncouth but loyal brigands. A clean-shaven newbie from the typing pool who quivers and quakes and resents Pitt forcing him to shoot an unarmed German prisoner (since he earlier didn't fire on a German soldier boys he saw, leading to another Sgt. being killed). We're put inside the mind of this kid (Logan Lerman) and there's some of that distasteful anachronism where he's way too wussy for 1945, hell, even for 1975, but wussy like they only started to make 'em in the post-PC 'declawing' of masculinity beginning around the early 80s. Wardaddy does the right thing in forcing him to kill an unarmed soldier --it's a matter of Pitt and crew's on personal survival that the kid be forced to surrender his squeamish morality. This suggests all sensitive typists (like myself) could use a few months on the front lines of a war with a guy like Wardaddy to toughen us up to the point we can turn compassion into an asset rather than a liability, so that we don't hesitate on the trigger when its time to kill or be killed.

We've seen this PC young typist character before, in Saving Private Ryan (played by the ever-mugging Jeremy Davies), though there we also had the chronic complainer (Ed Burns), and the "Wardaddy" there wasn't a mighty Pitt but 'decent guy' Tom Hanks. Pitt had proved he could be wild and liberated even whilst a young scrap of a fella, back in Thelma and Louise, so that's never been in doubt, but even so, here we got some extra layers of toughness as borne out by his scarred and diesel oil-stained face. We see him get kind of cleaned up when a nice little breakfast served up by a couple of frauleins in a little second floor apartment that's gone un-bombed, but when it's invaded by the rest of his motley tank corp, we see Pitt forced into a weird no-win zone between solidarity with his rapey crew and an innate gentlemanly spirit. It's the most tiresome scene in the film, it stretches on and on, and I'll confess I FF-ed part of the way, but it's almost worth it for the brutal pay-off, which finally brings things to bear for our milquetoast. Eventually the lad even learns when to let a kraut fry to death and when to chop him in half.  Hell yeah, Sgt. Rock loves this movie, wherever he is.

And if the whole last stand thing means that yet again the Saving Private similarities come too close to call, what is so important about Fury is what's not there, no balderdash bullshit about needing to ask a goddamned woman whether or not you 'earned it' and all that trying to find some greatest generation noble cause lollipop at the center of the severed head tootsie roll. It's finding you're manliness in the company of men and smoke grenades, that's what it's for, the war. David Ayers supposedly had a fight club thing going on each morning, each man fighting the other. As the man said, the fastest way for men to become friends is to fight each other.

We all knew Pitt could bring the nihilistic badassitude as could Michael Pena (Observe and Report), the real surprises in the crew are Jon Bernthal as the unkempt creep whose iron john energy finally connects with Lerman after the fraulein incident and--most amazingly--Shia LaBeouf, whom I've always regarded with some level of contempt, but his work here completely changed my mind. When it comes down to the nitty gritty of sharing last cigarettes and drinks before almost certain doom, it's Shia who really brought it home to me, deep in my socks, the feeling of being fully cognizant of the true finality of extinction, how one's death is pressed right up on the glass and always just a tap away, and of standing firm, fully in thrall of the only thing that can transcend the overwhelming instinct towards self-preservation, devotion to one's team, the crew, the captain, the Pitt, the king. It's something that, for all its greatness, the entirety of Band of Brothers was never able to achieve, and yet it's all right there, in Shia, who gets his voice down a full octave and takes swigs of booze so believably (as in, the pain of no chaser, rather than the blokes who drink it like ice tea) that you can smell the fumes inside that tank, adding to the pungent manly aroma of dried blood, sweat, gun powder, diesel oil, and cigarettes.

There's no voiceover in Fury, either, which also sets it above so many of its 'mother, am I a good man?' counterparts. And the ending credits are some of the coolest I've seen, with Steven Price's great A Silver Mt. Zion-esque soundtrack blasting over high contrast color-res images of the rest of the war, the idea that we all think that by the time we rolled over the German border the war was already won, but there was still a whole lot of pointless killing and destruction left undone, and soldiers that were just kids and old men, the fighting somehow double heinous, a pure waste of property, architecture, and lives rather than a noble cause. All that's left, then, is loyalty and brotherhood.

Ask the guys in Afghanistan and Iraq what they're fighting for and the answer's always the same: the guy next to them in the foxhole, their buddy, their brother by fire. That's the kind of thing that would sound trite in a voiceover but if a movie like Fury can show rather than tell, then maybe the senselessness itself can make sense. War is hell right up to the end but so is life when the unimportant stuff's stripped away. More so in Fury than most war films (since maybe the 1930s) if you're going to survive, you need to become Hell's chosen badass. So here we finally learn what Spielberg only hinted at in his clutching for decency, that every milquetoast has it in him to face death with both barrels blazing if it comes to that, and to let go of burdensome humanity and at the same time find a whole new Nietzsche paradigm. Patton knew it. Kubrick knew it. Pitt's Tyler Durden knows it, Sgt. Aldo Raine knows it, "Wardaddy" knows it and director David Ayers knows it. In filmmaking, as in war, the comfort of phony personae is the first thing that must go and the fastest way to shuck it is in a bare knuckle brawl. Even since the 90s, the Pitt persona has never wavered from that punchy code. He is our tousled lord, he is our approximate Arthur, our Kalifornia king. He is Hollywood's ice cream face emperor Joe Black, and all that's still standing between us and the terrible apron string hydra of mother.

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