Director: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal
Hollywood is long past the stage of glorifying war in its films. Once World War II finished the themes of heroism and adventure which home front morale demanded made way for a more honest approach, one which was further cemented in the cinematic response to the Vietnam War. Even still, there are few films which have shown war to be quite as hellish, gruesome and violent as Fury.
Sgt. Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier is a veteran tank commander. His tight knit crew of five came together in Africa and have stayed together, and alive, for a surprisingly long time. It is now April 1945 and they find themselves in Germany. With allied troops closing in on Berlin the end of the war is in sight, but the fighting is not done. When Collier’s assistant driver is killed in combat he is replaced by a young office clerk, Norman Ellison. Trained to type rather than to kill, Ellison has never even seen the inside of a tank. Collier has to break in Ellison fast, because the longer it takes him to fall into line and start doing his job, the more danger the crew is in.
The title Fury comes from the name given to their tank, painted on its gun barrel, but more significantly it reflects the emotional state of the characters. This is not a simplistic war of heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. This is a war where the ends justify the means. This is a dirty, violent and messy war where it is kill or be killed and the desire for survival turns people into monsters. Different characters deal with the demands of their situation in different ways. Some, like Shia LaBeouf’s man of faith Boyd Swan, need to believe in the righteousness of their mission. For others, it is simply a matter of embracing and accepting the chaos.
Collier’s efforts to break in Norman and harden him for war confront us as an audience. On the one hand we know that unless he can learn to adequately do his job the others are in danger, yet we also don’t want to see this young man lose his innocence and sacrifice his morality. When we finally see Noman spraying the enemy with hateful profanity as well as bullets, are we supposed to celebrate? Fury reminds us that the line between good and evil is not one which runs between people or between sides of a conflict, but one which runs through each and every person.
Director David Ayer is best known as a screenwriter, having penned the screenplays for Training Day, S.W.A.T. and The Fast and The Furious, as well as writing and directing End of Watch. Across his body of work Ayer has shown a fascination with masculinity – particularly violent masculinity – and the relationships between men. In Fury, Ayer is able to pick up on those themes again, but transplant them from Los Angeles based police dramas to a European World War II setting. Collier’s crew enjoy a complicated relationship. They have been through a lot together and survived. Ayer treats them like a family. The first scene we meet them they are arguing and fighting, but you can tell that this is not evidence of division, it is just them blowing off steam, and Collier is very much in control of the situation. In this claustrophobic iron box they are forced to live in each other’s pockets. They bicker and squabble, but when the moment demands it they have each other’s backs.
In 1998, Steven Spielberg rewrote the book on how to shoot war movies with Saving Private Ryan. The use of handheld shaky-cam in its startling Omaha Beach sequence created a frantic and immersive combat experience unlike any we had seen before. This shaky-cam technique quickly became the standard approach to shooting combat scenes. Fury is a film of graphic and impactful violence, but it abandons that recent popular aesthetic in favour of a more classic look. Ayer opts for more carefully and obviously composed shots in his battle sequences. The film gives us tank battles like we’ve never seen before, taking us inside these cumbersome iron giants as they manoeuvre through the battlefield. That is probably Fury’s most notable contribution to the war movie genre.
The combination of these interesting visual elements and psychological focus makes it quite disappointing when the film reverts to cliché for its final act. When they dig their heels in with their disabled tank to fight a 300 strong SS platoon all of the attempted nuance of the film to this point is abandoned in favour of good old-fashioned heroism. This is yet another classic last stand. Therein lies what makes Fury such a peculiar film. It is at once new and old fashioned. It takes quite a modern approach to its psychological view of war and what it does to people, but it places all of that interesting character study on quite an old fashioned and increasingly unrealistic story.
The timing of this release might give the impression that Fury is an Oscar contender. Unfortunately it does not quite reach those heights. But Ayer’s film is visually exciting as well as being, at times, insightful and thought provoking.
Review by Duncan McLean
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