by Matt Levine
Like too many war movies, Fury tries to have its blood-soaked cake and eat it too, preaching about the inhumanity of war while simultaneously expecting the audience to revel in its high-pedigree carnage. Using World War II Germany as a backdrop, the film harkens back to a “good war” with clear-cut heroes and villains. Even if a few scenes try to instill in us how irrevocably war can turn normal men into monsters, its overall plot progression tells a story of virtuous American soldiers battling villainous Nazis, its graphic violence a hypocritical sign of both the movie’s bloodlust and its faux-serious pretensions. Fury has nothing new to add to the already exhausted war genre, much less anything profound to say about the frailty of human nature.
Director: David Ayer
Producers: David Ayer, Bill Block, John Lesher, Ethan Smith
Writer: David Ayer
Cinematographer: Roman Vasyanov
Editors: Jay Cassidy, Dody Dorn
Music: Steven Price
Cast: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jim Parrack, Brad Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Jason Isaacs, Anamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood, Laurence Spellman
US Theatrical Release: October 17, 2014
US Distributors: Sony Pictures Releasing, Columbia Pictures
Writer-director David Ayer—who has made a career of fleshing out tough-guy environments, from Training Day (2001) to End of Watch (2012), like Howard Hawks without any of the finesse or humor—seems to think that Fury’s claustrophobic tank setting lends it a fresh perspective on World War II. In reality, though, the film is a predictable rehash of the clichés that were peddled as early as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and memorably reiterated in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Brad Pitt plays a grizzled sergeant named Don "Wardaddy" Collier, whose prewar personal life we learn almost nothing about (though we do learn that he admires horses and knows at least a few Bible verses). His company is a motley crew of grunts culled from the most barebones war-movie template imaginable. There’s the decent, pious Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who spouts Christian aphorisms and believes that God is protecting them (since God does, after all, bless America); the repugnant southern hillbilly Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal), who spits a southern drawl from behind blackened teeth, though (lo and behold!) he’s revealed to have a soft spot; the Mexican Gordo Garcia (Michael Peña), whose sole defining characteristic seems to be that he’s Mexican; and new recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a virginal greenhorn who expected mundane typing work before he was sent to the front. The men are confined to a Sherman tank nicknamed Fury, their cramped quarters inevitably drawing the brotherly soldiers closer together.
The story essentially consists of one likeminded mission after another, introduced with the blunt literality of a Medal of Honor video game. After a particularly deadly ambush, the film culminates in a Sparta-like standoff between the lone Fury tank and a massive SS battalion, five plucky Americans versus what seems to be half of the German army. By this point it has become obvious that we’re supposed to root for the Allies, any pretense to a morally ambiguous gray area be damned. We come to understand each character to varying degrees, though even the most fully fleshed individuals remain only mundane stereotypes; the extent to which we learn each character’s personality is also a surefire indication of which ones will survive the longest.
There are undeniable strengths in Fury, most notably its handsome cinematography and a few effective performances. Though the film’s visuals are impressive in only a sleek, workmanlike way, that’s often enough to captivate the eye if not the mind: a few faded, sepia-toned sequences are ravishing to watch, and the climactic firefight (illuminated by red and green streaks of bullets through the frame) is dazzling in the way a laser lightshow might be. The always-charismatic Pitt does what he can to bestow the absurdly stoic Collier with an ounce of personality, and a few of his interactions with the untarnished Norman convey what should be the movie’s central theme: how one’s humanity can be left behind in the wake of state-sanctioned murder. An interlude with two distrustful German women in their placid apartment provides the film with much-needed tenderness, though it replicates stereotypes of suffering wartime women that date back at least to 1925’s The Big Parade. More successful are some of the quieter moments between Collier and his men, especially their final respite before they're bombarded by the SS; the capable cast is able to evoke an embittered camaraderie between these men, even if they rarely come alive as individuals.
But even the film’s slight pleasures are suffocated by an overwhelming hypocrisy familiar from many war movies: it tries to be both antiwar and pro-war, striving to convey how brutalizing the experience is while falling into the same escapist trap of relatable heroes and conniving villains. True, one of the American soldiers survives only because an SS officer takes pity on him, and the film’s final shot can be read as a bemused God’s-eye viewpoint, bleakly observing all the wasted bullets and human lives, lost for no reason. But these glimmers of complexity are overwhelmed by the German civilians executed by the SS and the goose-stepping Nazis bellowing military marches and a scowling German officer commanding his troops to “kill them all!” during the climax. Such a muddled portrayal of both sides’ soldiers makes it frustratingly clear that Fury has nothing at all to say about war or what it does to the men involved in it, aside from a line of dialogue as simplistic as the film itself: “It ain’t pretty, but it’s what we do.”
War-genre apologists could argue that such films pose questions about militarism while still providing thrilling entertainment, but that’s ignoring how noxious such escapism can be politically. At a time when the United States is leading an international coalition to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (and thus committing to another war in the Middle East), it’s foolish to assume that war movies such as Fury can be viewed in a vacuum, with no relevance to what’s going on in the real world. Even if Fury occasionally pretends to be ambivalent about the value of war, we never doubt for a second that the beleaguered Americans are fighting the good fight on enemy terrain. Of course the film wasn’t intended as pro-war propaganda for an ensuing conflict in the Middle East, but given its simplistic notions of wartime heroes and villains, it comes off as disturbingly gung-ho nonetheless. Maybe that seems like an overly harsh accusation, but it seems irresponsible for war movies to look back somewhat nostalgically on the days of the Allies versus the Axis of Evil when we’re on the brink of yet another cataclysmic international war.
Aside from its unsettling parallels with real-world atrocities, Fury disappoints in its mundane, predictable succession of war-action setpieces. A number of over-the-shoulder and POV shots accompanying soldiers in the middle of battle even replicate the aesthetic of wartime video games like Call of Duty, which serve the same questionable purpose as movies like Fury: allowing the audience to vicariously experience the morbid thrill of war without actually enlisting in the armed forces. That you-are-there visceral immediacy can be thrilling, but in Fury it quickly becomes deadening, a series of violent shootouts with ostensibly deeper significance than the average action film. The tacky hypocrisy of the film is perfectly summarized by its closing credits sequence, in which stock footage of World War II—German soldiers on the march and images of Hitler and cities in conflagration—are reconfigured as a music-video style montage, bathed in red and smeared with emphatic white text. Imagine the poor designer tasked with stylizing those end credits, taking disturbing real-world footage and affixing it to an action movie that has almost nothing to say about the brutality of war. One might hope that filmmakers recreating a catastrophic period of our modern history would treat it with a shred of sobering respect—and maybe even recognize that the lessons learned in Germany (or Vietnam or Iraq) have tremendous bearing on what’s going on in our own volatile world.