The opening scene sets us up for an almost post-apocalyptic vista, we see a black shadow come out of the fug of battle, a German officer, riding on horseback with background music reminiscent of Carmina Burana, only to be jumped by Pitt’s character and killed.
I have to say that this is a good movie but not a great one. If I have to be honest I found it a little derivative and also a little lacking in budget. If I had to describe it in terms of another movie, Memphis Belle (Michael Caton-Jones, 1990) springs to mind, in so far as it is about the crew on a tank (aircraft) trying to get to the end of the war, despite the challenges thrown at them. The cast is good, if slightly unbalanced. Pitt is a good lead, holding the team together, the star of the show however is Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2012). This is not a Spielberg movie, with wide camera shots and panoramic vistas, this is in your face close-up cinema. Directed by David Ayer (End of Watch, 2012).
The story starts in April 1945, in the dying days of the war, despite the closing chapter , the resistance is still strong, with crews dealing with fanatical hold-outs in the advance on Berlin. At the start we see typist Norman Ellison (Lerman) find his way to the new crew, where he is promptly treated as all newbies, Driver, Garcia (Michael Peña – who worked with Ayer on End of Watch in 2012) immediately goes through Norman’s kitbag looking for “smokes” these are the important things not the books young Norman brought with him.
As the story develops we learn that the crew has been together for a number of years, indeed the opening scenes see us witnessing one of the crew being removed, headless. Norman is his replacement. As assistant driver, he is placed with Garcia, who quickly sets about making it clear what he needs to do and not do. All of this is alongside the constant ribbing of Grady (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead, 2010-2012) the gunner’s mate. The large Hillbilly type character is constantly needling the young recruit and causes some tension along the way which Sgt. Collier has to contain.
Sgt. Collier’s call sign is “Wardaddy” and we quickly see why. The opening scene tells us, his crew is the only survivor or a raid. Later on when he is teamed up with a tank squad under the command of a young lieutenant, he quickly puts the young officer in his place while at the same time ensuring that the other sergeants carry out the orders. When the officer is Killed, he takes over command of the squad, all of the other sergeant in the squad already know him and respect his leadership. All this works to define the character as the movie proceeds.
The crew is rounded off by gunner Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless, 2012), who takes the shape of a Southern Preacher, often quoting Verse to apply to a situation and trying to offer a sort of moral compass to the crew.
The crew is tasked to support the taking of a town, with a small squad of Shermans. The captain leading the attack (Jason Isaacs, After the Fall, 2014) in the nearby village gives Collier his instructions, where the Tough Collier simply – politely – asks to lead his tanks a certain route, The captain simply replies that he knows him and his reputation, and he should do as he needs to . In this moment we see what could make this a much better film, attention to detail, little lines that give us character.
Before this attack the team is resting up in the town they just entered, as they approach the town they see the bodies of Germans, young and old, strung up for not fighting the Allies. When the town is taken the Burgermeister is leading out people under a white flag, among those coming out is an SS officer, Collier shouts down to the Burgermeister (in fluent German) if the officer is responsible for the hangings, yes. On Collier’s orders the officer is taken aside and shot.
This is a motive which carries through the movie. In this town scene. Collier spies a nervous woman by a window and goes to see what or who she might be hiding, It is her cousin. The women are treated well, by Collier and young Norman, the crew eventually arrive and share a meal cooked from supplies Collier gave the Germans. The crew through Grady is controlled through their childish actions to the German. What we see is a politically correct view that the ordinary German people were as much victims as others. Indeed the hatred is saved of the Nazis, such as SS soldiers.
Collier can be cruel, as with the rest of the crew, we see this when he forces young Norman to shoot a German prisoner, one caught wearing a US officer’s coat. This is done for his own good. It comes after a blood battle to clear the way for trapped troupes which has caused the deaths of a number of the other crews.
Unfortunately it is the battle scenes which although done well and I have to say violently, let the movie down a little. They reminded me of the cheap made for TV movies which show a sweeping panoramic shot of a great scene (usually poor CGI) and then show all of the fighting close up and clearly limited. I felt a bit like that watching a scene clearly limited by budget.
If we compare it to Lebanon, (Samuel Maoz, 2009), we get the same sense of claustrophobic struggle with which the crews must carry on.
The movie works towards the great climax where the crew holds off an advancing SS battalion, by which stage Norman’s transformation to a fighting soldier is complete, so much so that he gains his new warname of “Machine”.
The movie is stylised, not least of all with the various hair-styles worn by the crew, I suspect crafted to suit the personalities of each of the crew members.
This is a war movie but not an epic. The effects are close up without any big expensive sweeping shots that we have seen in movies like Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) or even Bridge at Ramagen (John Guillermin 1969). If I had to liken this to a particular movie, it would be Ramagen, with Segal’s Lieutenant Hartman being an analogue of Colliers’. The danger with close action shots is that certain extras can pop-up more than necessary, there was one soldier who seemed to pop-up a few times here when they could have used another extra, scrappy.
A firm 3star movie, not bad but will not be a classic.