It would seem as long as there are movies, we will never stop seeing stories of World War II- called by many the last “great war.” An event that changed the course of human history and the stories populated throughout will never lose their allure where heroism was not expected, but never denied. Even though the allies did save the world, they didn’t see it as superhero work, but just their job.
A compelling and contradictory event with all the required ingredients for some solid storytelling; honor, duty, bravery and wanton bloodshed- human DNA played out in movie theaters across the world. Ordinary men thrown into an extraordinary situation always makes for good drama and “Fury” know it- it’s not a ground-breaking film, but it’s pretty damn good.
As the Allies make their final push into Nazi Germany in April 1945, a battle-hardened U.S. Army Staff Sergeant in the 66th Armored Regiment, 2nd Armored Division named Don “War Daddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) commands an M4A3E8 Sherman tank named Fury and its five-man, all-veteran crew: Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), gunner; Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), loader; and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), driver. The tank’s original assistant driver/bow gunner has been killed in battle and his replacement turns out to be a recently enlisted (6 weeks in) Army typist, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who is new to everything. Norman later earns the nickname “Machine”, as he becomes a skilled Nazi killer. It’s from Norman’s and War Daddy’s perspective that we see the film‘s dual personality; heroics, humanity and brutality, hostility play out, sometimes within the same scene.
The events surrounding the characters are true despite how it ends up; we have seen these character before, archetypes is more like it, but they never feel clichéd or overdone. It gets the point across without it feeling like a dull history lesson. So much so, Ayers gets fantastic performances from all his crew; Pitt runs hot and cold for me in the movies as of late, running back and forth between charming and a colossal bore. Yet He finds his groove here as the father figure, the old man of the group who’s survived three years in Africa and earned the title, “War Daddy.” Like a good father he dispenses his own justice to his crew especially when newbie Norman screws up and refuses to kill Germans. WD is tired, battle-scarred, looks older than his years, but remains stoic, terse, sometimes cruel, sometimes noble, but realistic and teaches the kid Norman quickly how to survive in chaos. One harrowing sequence has him demanding Norman to kill a Nazi SS taken prisoner. Norman won’t so he forces the gun in his hand and makes him shoot. Norman curses him, War Daddy slaps him around and keeps telling him he’s not human, he’s an SS- the kid finally gets the point. War Daddy is harsh, but realistic; a stark contrast to his slightly campy performance in “Inglorious Basterds.”
Shia LaBeouf, “bible,” who has been in the news more for his peculiar personal antics than his work, is a revelation- he tries to find a purpose, in his the bible and look for God in a godless situation. It’s a great performance, nuanced and steady; he never takes it too far and proves he can be interesting and quite capable. His character is the balancing act between the extremes of War Daddy and Norman. Great support with Michael Pena as the tank driver “Gordo” and John Bernthal as “Coon-Ass”, in slightly smaller roles; they get some excellent moments, most of it at the expense of Norman in their attempts to toughen him up.
Logan Lerman is the films best performance as the reluctant solider; he’s young, naive and doesn’t quite understand at first that he can’t pick and choose who he kills. He hates it, his crew hates him for it, but he learns in order to survive you have to be as bad as or worse than the enemy to survive. Lerman has been a new favorite since the brilliant, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” He’s an expressive, passionate actor, and he doesn’t go for the expected beats. He gives Norman an everyman persona who constantly questions why and slowly bonds with his crew amidst the dismay, the cruelty and insanity.
Not nearly as impactful as “Saving Private Ryan and the themes it covers are long familiar to us, but what it does, it does very well. It’s visceral and brutal; the revulsions of war are not romanticized or ignored. It’s raw and uncomfortable; tank treads rolling over a body packed into the mud, an elderly woman cutting meat off a dead horse, heads blown off, bodies blown apart by grenades. Sobering stuff, yet it manages to tell a compelling story; a traditional movie story, without fake sentiment or preachy ideals. The switching back and forth from noble savages to complete savages gives the film its genuineness, there are no rules in this situation, they make it up as they go and pretend it doesn’t affect them. They are being human in every aspect of what that sentence means.
The screenplay is one of the leanest in quite some time for an event film as this; streamlined and to the point and that’s what works best for the drama. Some get-to-know-them-before-they-are-killed moments are done believably and make an impression all wrapped around the kinetic action which is some of the best in any war film. The action scenes are choreographed perfectly; so often in action and especially war films today, the idea of disorientation is aimed for and it almost never works as the camera vibrates, and the editing looks as though it was done with a chainsaw. The audience loses interest as they can’t tell which side is which and who is dead and who is alive. Here, its fluid, the camera is steady as we see what is happening from all perspectives. A nice touch of authenticity was added the gun fire “light” effects, to the stream of bullets as seen in the news reel films. An especially neat kick for this Star Wars nerd as it looks very much like a laser gun shootout; ironic since the dogfights in Star Wars were inspired by these types of newsreel films. Even with those special effects finesse, the point is made; war is hell, it’s not fun, it’s not glorious. Its death, it’s final, it’s stupid and it’s ugly. Some critics have bashed the ending as unearned and a cop-out, I don’t buy it. It’s a reasonable ending, it makes sense in the context of how things play out and it does feel earned.
As I left “Fury” I recalled another war film with the same mission; “The Big Red One” which never strived to be a big Hollywood adventure epic, but it too a sincere discourse on the horrors, but sometimes necessities of war and how we deal with the absurdity and chaos. “Fury” doesn’t touch that film’s greatness, but it is very good and does touch on how fragile life is, how we constantly stand on the precipice of death and how to never forget the sacrifices given.