Those of us who haven’t been there have all heard war is hell but the new movie Fury, written and directed by David Ayer (End of Watch)reaffirms that truism by grabbing viewers by the throat and thrusting them into it all…. the blood and the dirt and the terror, the ambiguity, the struggle to maintain sanity, the heroism, suffering, and colossal human waste.
This is not a war movie to “enjoy”, it is a reminder, an impressive attempt to show all the awfulness from the perspective of fictional characters placed in a real historical environment, and it is a work of art. It also distinguishes itself by being that rare World War II film about tank warfare.
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Death, gore, and violence are inherent to the subject matter, so it’s not the filmmakers fault that I struggled through the two hours and 15 minutes with my stomach in knots from tension. I would and will sit through it again to see the incredible ensemble acting, to closer examine the production design and cinematography by Andrew Menzies (3:10 to Yuma) and Roman Vasyanov (End of Watch), respectively, and to revel in the haunting score, courtesy of Steven Price (Gravity).
Menzies captures both the claustrophobia of the tank and the enormity of battlegrounds in the European theater of WWII. He puts propaganda-like images of a sky full of planes, against tanks rolling over a muddied and crushed dead soldier, and makes them work together in the service of the story. Vasyanov, interestingly enough, is the son of a photographer for the Soviet propaganda magazine USSR, so he comes to this film with a family history, and it serves him well. Price’s score is anthemic, but in what feels like a more personal way, as if he is trying to inspire the men in the film individually.
Brad Pitt plays Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the literally battle scarred and hardened leader commanding a Sherman tank and its five man crew striking through German enemy lines at the end of European fighting in April 1945. Out-gunned and emotionally damaged, they hunker down in the cramped interior of their tank. The audience witnesses their interactions and choices at such close proximity it almost feels like their confusion, suffering, and emotional trauma seeps out of the screen. This is ensemble acting at its very best, only enhancing the great script and character design. Joined together with Pitt’s Wardaddy are the other four members of the tank crew, all perfectly cast.
Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan, preaches and prays over the dying one minute, and guns down soldiers, the threat to their survival, in the next. Jon Bernthal’s Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis seems the most changed and angry, although we wonder if he has always been a slightly unhinged jerk, but has become fiercely loyal to his tank mates. Michael Pena’s Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia attempts a calm demeanor while clearly struggling with severe PTSD from memories of recent battles. Lastly, Logan Lerman’s Norman Ellison is a newbie typist thrust into the violent fray only 8 weeks into his tour.
It is the juxta-positioning of the iron-willed and seemingly jaded Wardaddy and the innocent, naive Norman that is the lynchpin of the entire story arc. It is the mixture of ensemble acting and individual character subtext that makes it, and the entire story, work so well. The audience members, like those in the story, try not to feel too much. After all, it’s only a movie. We figure at least some won’t likely make it through to the end, but we can’t help ourselves. Each character’s interior story is fairly bouncing off of each other and out of the film, making us care, even or perhaps especially when they do something morally questionable.
Pitt amps up and nuances the acting he’s done up to this moment, notably Inglorious Basterds and The Tree of Life and he obviously has a passion for bringing this story into being, as he is one of the executive producers. The moments where he allows himself his suffering in 30 seconds of solitude are masterful, as are several of his exchanges with Lerman and LaBeouf. While all those riding the tank bring powerful performances, those two are the stand outs.
Lerman doesn’t reduce his portrayal of fresh recruit to one dimension, allowing audiences to believe in his quick transformation. LaBeouf always looks on the verge of tears from some unknown remembered horror. At the Washington DC premiere of the film, he said “war is the only place where unconditional love amongst men is tolerated.” His character personifies that, and he is nearly mesmerizing to watch. Some of his character’s story is revealed in the course of the movie, but whatever additional inner life he has given ‘Bible’, it shows in his every tick.
Co-star Jason Isaacs as Captain Waggoner deserves a mention, as he does much in his little screen time. He’s never met a movie he can’t enhance with his commitment as an actor.
There is little wrong I can find with any aspect ofFury. Don’t go to it, though, to get away from the kids on date night. Go to witness a group of people who have come together to create a uniquely visceral and raw story about war on film, however often its been done before. The film speaks through its characters, showing the potential personal toll of each battle fought. You may bring your defenses, but they will prove of little use. Fury will stay with you, and will long be remembered as one of the best and most authentic character-driven feature films on WWII.
5 out of 5 stars
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures