By Linc Leifeste | October 16, 2014
Director: David Ayer
Writer: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jim Parrack, Brad Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Jason Isaacs, Anamarie Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood
War is hell, as we all should know by now. And yet there’s nothing like war to create a mystical bonding between men stuck together in its fiery grasp, as we should also be aware of by now. And wars, no matter how just or unjust, seem uniquely able to bring out the very best in men even as they engage in activity that illustrates humanity at its worse. Or so, at least, endlessly posits our literature and cinema. And there seems to be no better war to use as a backdrop for these stories of valor, courage and grace that can redeem even the most brutally violent of acts than World War II, with its hellish villain and his evil attempt at world domination and “ethnic cleansing” allowing more leeway for stories of heroic resistance no matter how brutal and ugly the specifics of the endeavor.
Fury, David Ayer’s story of a tank battalion trying to push through Germany to reach Berlin in the waning days of the war, is no exception. So the first question that comes to mind is, “Do we really need another WWII movie?’ The answer is, much like the characters in the film, as complicated as you want it to be. What Ayer’s film does uniquely is focus on the tank warfare of WWII (I, for one, had no idea that German tanks were vastly superior to American tanks), particularly in the waning days of the war, a period marked by desperation on the part of the Nazis and war-weary, determined tenacity on the part of the Allies, eager to end the war as quickly as possible by whatever means necessary.
Another accomplishment of Ayer’s (along with cinematographer Roman Vasyanov) is in capturing the hellish sights and sounds of warfare involving heavy guns and heavy machinery, taking the intense realism and brutality of the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan to new levels and stretching it out for the majority of the film’s 2 hour and fifteen minute running time. There’s a real sense conveyed of the horror, shock and fear inherent in rolling through enemy territory trapped inside of a machine that, while powerful and fearful, is also something of a mobile death trap. And when the silence is suddenly shattered by the firing of a high powered artillery shell bearing down on your position, it sends a chill down your spine.
Beyond that, the film captures the up close and brutal savagery that is a part of war. From the opening of the film, which features tank commander Sgt. Don Collier (Brad Pitt), leaping out of hiding to dismount and dispatch via a knife through the eye a horseback German soldier surveying the still-smoking post-battle carnage to the film’s Alamo-like final sequence, there are severed limbs, exploding heads, bullets ripping flesh, and knives slicing through meat and bone aplenty, with everything covered in layers of mud, dirt, grime and blood.
To his credit, while proving himself highly adept at such endeavors, Ayers is not content to simply make a ultra-violent video-game-like WW-II film. No, he also wants philosophical gravitas. But its in his pursuit of depth of character where Ayers at times falls short. Pitt’s performance as “Wardaddy” Collier, a man whose moral compass is permanently broken, is flawless. His only goal has become surviving the war and making sure that the four-man crew under his watch does the same. The best way to make sure that happens is to kill Nazis and to do it as efficiently as possible. What he lacks in charm he makes up for in brutality, but within the context of war, his actions are forgivable if not quite fully redeemed.
When they lose a man, he’s replaced with a young soldier, Norman (Logan Lerman), who has been trained as a typist and has not yet been hardened by the horrors of war. The driving conflict in the film becomes his youthful idealism and naivety clashing against the honestly learned hardened savagery of his fellow soldiers. His hesitation at pulling the trigger when he sights the enemy endangers his fellow soldiers and Pitt takes on the task of hardening him, even if it means forcing him to execute a freshly captured German soldier.
Ayers does a nice job of capturing quieter moments of interplay between the men but there is an extended scene where Collier and Norman interact with a couple of fetching young German women in a freshly captured town that lingers on for too long and accomplishes too little. Clearly an attempt by Ayers at character development, it does reveal a bit about Collier but comes at the heavy cost of breaking the flow of the film.
Lerman, while competent in his portrayal, lacks something of the simmering intensity of Pitt and, surprising to say, of Shia LaBeouf, whose portrayal of Boyd “Bible” Swan is powerful. There’s not a truer, more honest moment in the entire film than LaBeouf’s dialogue as he and his crew-mates are preparing to face the enemy in what appears to be a hopeless battle. Unfortunately, as that extended final battle scene plays out the intense realism and darkly effective “war is hell” motif seem to be smothered by a creeping romanticization of the courage of American soldiers making a valiant last stand against the overwhelming faceless, soulless forces of darkness.