The paradox that challenges most war films is simple: If the action and events are not ‘real’ or violent enough viewers will look down their noses, yet if the action and events are as ‘real’ and violent as war actually is, they’ll simply look away.
Writer-director David Ayer‘s “Fury,” a film about tank warfare in the waning days of World War II, does not flinch or fuss when it comes to showing the blood, gore and gristle of modern armed conflict. But at the same time, by doing so, it attains a savage grace that turns its brutality into a kind of truth, as hulking metal juggernauts crush across the landscape spitting fire and death with fragile, mortal flesh-and-blood men inside. This isn’t disposable popcorn entertainment, or a winking “war” film like “Inglourious Basterds.” Ayer’s aim here is a film that will stick, and stick with you. And he achieves it.
Beginning in April 1945, and with a title explaining that the German tank corps had far superior armor and arms than the tanks of their American opposition, “Fury” takes its name from the Sherman tank under the leadership of Sgt. Don Collier (Brad Pitt, who also produced). Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf) is the pious and positive main gunner; Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal) is Swan’s coarse loader and ad-hoc engineer. Trini Garcia (Michael Peña, a prior Ayer collaborator) is the wine-thirsty driver.
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And their assistant driver is dead, to be replaced by transferred clerk Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), pulled from the clerk’s pool and put in the assistant driver’s seat with his fingers on the trigger of a machine gun. Ellison hasn’t been to tank school — “I’m trained to type 60 words a minute!” — and one of his first tasks upon joining Fury’s crew is to get what’s left of his predecessor out of the inside with a bucket of cold water and a rag. His education, under Sgt. Collier, will turn a near-civilian into a survivor, and at no small cost.
Writer-director Ayer usually sticks close to the mean streets of L.A. (“End of Watch,” “Street Kings,”) but the change here serves him well. It’s not just that “Fury” has terrific action sequences with real World War II-era tanks in operation on-screen (which it does). It’s also that “Fury” is in no small part about the moral and ethical consequences of war: what it takes to kill, what it takes to survive, what it takes to do the job of murder as ordered to in the name of your nation.
Even with its speaker-rattling and stunningly shot action, “Fury” contains moments of something like beauty. An all-too-brief interlude Collier and Elliott spend with two German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) is an oasis of civility and civilian life — fresh eggs, a close shave, a man and a woman alone for a moment — interrupted by the drunk, coarse remainder of the crew. Bernthal specifically embodies one of the film’s central ideas, namely, as Dr. Johnson said, how “he who makes himself a beast rids himself of the pain of being a man.” All of Collier’s crew have to become beasts, because to be a mere man at the ugly end of an ugly war would be intolerable.
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The performances are excellent, even if Ayer’s film is far more of a tour-de-force, with the emphasis on force, about the mechanics and morality of war than it is about its characters. You get the sense of real combat here, the vast and mighty enterprise of it alongside the futile and doomed waste. Pitt, as Collier, is a standout — not only for his work as Collier but the fact he was willing to play the part at all; Pitt has always been an actor trapped in a movie star’s face and life, and his willingness to shun ‘likeability’ is a badge of honor.
Production designer Andrew Menzies is to credit for much of the film’s claustrophobic look and feel, recreating the inside of a Sherman tank for the scenes of war and work and worry among the crew while also painting the larger canvas of a battle-ruined Germany. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“The East,” “End of Watch”) does a surprisingly vivid job with a film that mostly takes place in rivers of muck, blood and mud.
Ayer is also a veteran of the U.S. Navy, having served aboard submarines, and while subs and tanks seem not at all alike, the sense of close-quarters working and living, with one ear always listening for the killing shot that’s aimed at you, informs the film significantly. You’re in this film, nestled close, from the start right up to its brutal finale, as the men of Fury’s crew have to hold off a massive force of German troops alone, weary Spartans with a dirt crossroads as their Thermopylae.
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Ayer’s “Fury” is unrelenting; at the same time, it inspires thoughts of everything from Sam Fuller’s jut-jawed war films to the blunt truth of Randall Jarrell’s 1945 poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” In 1971, Vietnam veteran (later Secretary of State) John Kerry posed the questions, testifying before the U.S. Senate: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
“Fury” wonders, with purpose and power, how you can even ask someone to be the last person to die for a “good” war? Unflinching, unsentimental and never unconsidered, “Fury”‘s rumbling, metal-clad exterior has real humanity, fragile and frightened, captured and caged deep within it.