Fury Dir. David Ayer

[Sony Pictures; 2014]

Styles: war
Others: Saving Private Ryan, Cross of Iron, The Beast, The Big Red One, The Wild Bunch

Whether they star John Wayne or Tom Hanks, countless films about World War II celebrate the moral courage of The Greatest Generation, a term coined by Tom Brokaw in his eponymous book. For a while, anyway, David Ayer’s Fury attempts to rewrite the idea of the good, noble American GI. His soldiers are cruel and uncivilized, and there is value in their savagery, not their courage. But Ayer abandons this idea toward the end of the film, and Fury resorts to the simplistic “no guts, no glory” heroics of countless war films that precede it. Maybe Ayer stared into the horrific maw of war, didn’t like what he saw, and decided that simpler theatrics are worth celebration instead.

It’s April 1945, and the German Army is nearly in the throes of defeat. They’re still fighting as hard as ever — Ayer and his characters go through great pains to tell us this — and so the action is at a fever pitch. Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) is a weary tank commander whose gunner just expired. The gunner’s replacement is Norman (Logan Lerman), a typist who has no real combat training. The other tank operators haze Norman until Wardaddy puts him through a real trial: in order to make Norman desensitized to death, he forces the young typist to murder an SS officer in cold blood. Norman begs for mercy, while the other Americans stand there without blinking an eye. Ayer says we’re no better than they are, and the only thing that matters is the willingness to kill. This is not the narrative Brokaw would want us to remember.

Fury is the name of the tank in Fury, and Ayer films it with nasty realism so you can practically smell the inner sanctum (as well as the grunts who populate it). There are two throwaway scenes in which Wardaddy discusses strategy with his captain (Jason Isaacs), yet Ayer prefers episodic violence over broader tactics. In terms of tank action, Ayer combines claustrophobia with the tank’s deliberate movement, and there’s suspense over whether the operators can line up the shot before they’re killed. The best sequence involves four Sherman tanks versus a German Tiger tank; the Americans are outgunned with the superior machine, so they act like pawns so that one of them can maybe get through. With clear battles lines and measured competence, the action feels all the more brutal.

There is another long sequence that offers an intriguing parallel with the Tiger showdown, even if there is no combat. Before Wardaddy ships out for his final mission, he takes Norman into a bombed out German apartment where two young women hide, and then forces them to make him breakfast. Ayer shoots the scene like it’s a nightmare of domesticity, with Wardaddy as the Father who knows best. Naturally, none of the soldiers are self-aware enough to realize they’re monsters: the German women are coerced into obedience, both in the kitchen and bedroom, and the remaining tank crew is angry when they see they’re left out. Wardaddy sees Norman and himself as different from the other tankers, who lack an appreciation of the finer things. Ayer lets this dark role-playing satire play out, concluding that the pretense of manners is not enough to make ignoble, violent men into great men.

It’s to the credit of the actors that they do not apologize for their characters, even if Ayer himself lets them off the hook. Pitt and Lerman play tired archetypes — the weathered leader and the green soldier who comes into his own, respectively — yet they add dimension through non-verbal acting. Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal are competent with thankless roles (Bernthal plays a crude moron like he was born into it), so the only real surprise is from Shia LaBeouf, who plays his religious character as if he’s literally a conduit for God’s righteousness. Ayer and LaBeouf know it’s bullshit, of course, and they respect that the character does not.

With nonstop grit and antiheroes who veer from cowards to sadists, Fury dismantles one war cliché after another, at least until it celebrates them. The film’s long climax is a shift in the tank’s purpose: it becomes a turret, a pill box, a bunker, and ultimately a tomb. The climax unspools like a pale comparison to the work of Sam Peckinpah, a director who doggedly depicted combined ugliness with queasy thrills. Sadly, the final sequence of Fury is more like video game and less like historical revisionism, complete with manipulative music and shots that celebrate the glory of battle (Pitt is given a series of implausible hero poses that would make John Wayne blush). Ayer starts with an intriguing, nihilistic art film and somehow ends with a guttural, righteous hoo-rah straight out Hollywood. By the time Ayer dwells on the tedious messianic imagery, Brokaw would have probably shed a single manly tear, and so The Greatest Generation lives on in the popular imagination.

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