Director David Ayer delivers a bold, violent, and thrilling meditation on war and sacrifice with Fury.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” The annals of history depict World War II as the last Great War that was fought for the betterment of mankind. If Nazi Germany had been allowed to survive, and continue its conquering and extermination of millions of displaced people, the world would be a very different place. But there is a common myth that both history books and Hollywood cinema continually recycle – once America landed on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944 the war was essentially won. Though the victory at Normandy was the turning of the tide, the war in Europe would still rage on for another 11 months, leaving behind a wake of death and destruction. The new film Fury wallows in the filth, blood, and guts of the last weeks of the Allied war in Germany when soldiers were at their most desperate. It is a bleak, bold, and violent film that reminds us that even wars that are seemingly worth fighting for leave behind deep, unhealable scars, and that for the soldiers on the ground there is no such thing as truly winning.
Fury opens on a decimated battle field, with a ragtag crew of four in a Sherman tank being the only survivors. But even they are not without casualties. They have lost their gunner (bits of his face decorate the inside of the tank) and the audience witnesses the tank crew near breaking point right at the start of this journey. From the outset, it is clear that this won’t be your typical heroic World War II film.
As the tank returns back to base camp, the crew finds themselves stuck with a new recruit named Norman (Logan Lerman), who was trained as a typist and is meant to replace their gunner. The leader of the tank crew, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), is none too happy with his new green private and takes it upon himself to give the boy an education in war throughout the course of the narrative. Norman’s naiveté and Don’s battle-hardened world-weariness become the focal point of the story, and their interactions and ruminations on war provide the film with its emotional backbone. The rest of the tank crew is filled with similar stock characters (one of Fury’s greatest strengths is toying with typical war movie conventions) that are given surprising depth from a committed ensemble that includes Shia LaBeouf as Boyd “Bible” Swan (a devout man of faith); Michael Pena as Trini “Gordo” Garcia (a Mexican-American borderline alcoholic); and Jon Bernthal as Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (an Arkansas hillbilly with a penchant for troublemaking).
What gives Fury its power is the film’s immaculate attention to detail through character interaction. The actors all imbed their characters with various tics and eccentricities that would come along with years of battle fatigue. Their camaraderie and sense of self is palpable. There is a natural rhythm to their dialogue, horseplay, and expressed grief that gives the picture a real sense of authenticity. Director and writer David Ayer goes out of his way to cut to reaction shots of every man in the tank even when an event doesn’t directly correlate to a given character. It is these moments, where oftentimes there is no dialogue, that hit the hardest as they provide a window into these men’s souls. The claustrophobic setting of a mechanical beast only heightens the drama. You are seeing men of war reduced to their base elements while trying to retain some sense of humanity. Though little backstory is given on any character, by the time the credits start rolling you really believe you have gotten to know these men and you care deeply about their fate. It would be a shame to single out any one performance as the standout here as the ensemble in uniformly excellent, but it should be said that Brad Pitt gives his most nuanced performance in years and Logan Lerman is heartbreaking as the audience’s eyes into this hellish nightmare. Shia LaBeouf reminds us all of his immense talent here, which will hopefully go a long way to repairing his image.
The film’s attention to detail spans beyond character, with its warfare and setting being particularly brutal. The landscape is riddled with mountains of human corpses, body parts, mud, filth, and debris. This world is hell on earth and though the war may be coming to an end, these soldiers’ nightmares are not. Even when the film gives a brief reprieve from the carnage during its middle section in a small German village (the most unexpected and potent section of the film), the dread and decay are apparent on every building façade and on each surviving human’s grim faces. Rarely in films do you see the weight, burden, and cost of war put up so succinctly on the screen. Ayer wants the horror to surround his audience as much as it does his characters. And of course there are the tank battles themselves, which are riveting in staging and execution, aided by stunning 35mm cinematography by Roman Vasyanov. There are battles here the likes of which you have never seen on screen before. The aural landscape is all-encompassing with its hail of gunfire, mortar, and mechanical screeches. Fury is an immersive and harrowing experience that is tough to sit through and will leave you absolutely shaken by its end. World War II may have been a war we had to fight, but the loss of lives and tragedy that resulted on all fronts are not depicted as a victory here. This may very well be the strongest anti-war film since Platoon.
Fury’s shortcomings are few. The film seemingly takes place within a 24 hour period, which lacks a little credibility when it comes to Lerman’s character arc (though that doesn’t detract from his poignant performance). The film’s last 30 minutes also devolve into standard war film action beats, but its execution is immaculate. A longer cut of the film (which is said to exist) would also help flesh out some character motivations. And then there is the ending itself, which feels like a slight betrayal to the realism that came before — but really these are all minor quibbles which do not take away one ounce of this film’s overwhelming power. As it stands Fury is one of the best films of the year and one of the greatest war films to come along in at least a decade. “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”