Friday, November 28, 2014
Fury Movie Review
The stalwart leader. The tough talker. The man of God. The wise-cracker. The fresh-faced innocent. These are the broad types you can find in just about every American war movie. There are others, but these are the five found in Fury, the latest WWII flick and probably the most memorable since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Though it bears some resemblance to that tale of a squad of American soldiers behind enemy lines after D-Day, it falls somewhat short of both the storytelling and technical heights achieve by it. Fury also suffers the unfortunate fate of having to be compared to Band of Brothers, which set the bar so high for WWII movies, I’m not sure I can ever really enjoy another one.
Brad Pitt plays Sgt. “Wardaddy” Collier, the leader of a tank crew operating at the front in Germany just before Hitler realized all was lost and put a bullet in his head. Unlike Band of Brothers, which saw Easy Company winding things down at this late stage, the boys in Fury are faced with some of the toughest fighting of their European campaign, against the most fanatical resistance of soldiers who won’t let their homeland fall into enemy hands. Collier and his crew, including “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), “Gordo” (Michael Peña, “Coon-Ass” (John Bernthal) have seen enough of war and death to inure them to the worst horrors. They are joined by Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman, destined to continue playing roles like this for about the next two decades), a fresh recruit with no battle experience.
Fury does two things that I can’t recall any American war film doing before. First is that it puts us inside a tank. We’ve been right there with paratroopers, infantry, bomber crews, on ships and submarines, but never inside those steel beasts. I guess it presents technical challenges, but I imagine they’re not much different from those presented by the inside of a submarine. The other, and more crucial, difference is depicting American soldiers as far less than perfectly moral and righteously fighting the good fight. These guys are disgraceful as soldiers meant to be following the rules of conduct in war. After Norma fails his first outing in battle pull the trigger in time, Wardaddy’s method of initiation is to literally force his hand in the illegal execution of a German prisoner.
Now I hate Nazis and I think they’re just about as bad as humanity has ever been in the history of the world and I think no matter how poorly these American characters behave, they’re still better than Nazis, moral relativism and all. But I think I still prefer to live under the illusion (and let’s not kid ourselves about it, surely there were plenty of immoral American soldiers in WWII who committed war crimes) that our boys were perfect over there. Of course that’s no criticism of the movie, but a recognition of my reaction to it.
Where I do find room for criticism is in just how on the nose everything is regarding the battle-hardened tank crew versus the new guy. There’s hardly a new idea or a line of dialogue in the screenplay by David Ayer that isn’t entirely clichéd. It’s also unsubtle. And of course Norman eventually starts to turn. Not too much, mind you. They can’t have him go so far that he becomes an anti-hero. Wardaddy fills that role. Norman has to come out the other end virtually unscathed, morally speaking.
The biggest punch that Fury packs is not in the story or characters, which are fairly rudimentary, or even in the climactic battle, a certain-death suicide last stand against a company of S.S. (this movie’s version of enemy Bogeymen), but in the tremendous and unflinching visceral depiction of war and its consequences. It’s not so much the fact that people, including innocents, are killed, but the sheer indifference of who is marked for death. And I can hardly recall another recent film that makes such incredible use of sound mixing and editing to put you right into those scenes. In an age when pretty much every studio action film has state-of-the-art sound production, it has become increasingly difficult to single out a particular film for technical praise. Yet somehow Ayer’s sound team has done it. Every nick, ping, clang, bang, and whizz of bullets, shells, and bombs can be felt to the bone. It’s an incredible aural experience.
This is a war movie that reflects the more complicated realities of the early 21st century, a century that has seen America engaged in unpopular conflict on the other side of the world and viewed as the aggressors and torturers. A movie like Fury is not so much besmirching our collective memory of the Greatest Generation as much as it is thinking very critically and severely about the current one. In a decade or so when books are being written about the films of today, I can imagine this is one that will be cited as emblematic of a larger ambivalence toward America’s role in global military politics. For right now, as pure cinematic entertainment and drama, it doesn’t feel all that fresh.