Monday, December 29, 2014

Fury: A Review


War is an ugly business.  It's about surviving day to day, it's about killing someone, partially for self-defense, partially because you've been ordered to, and partially because they are on opposite sides.  Fury is interesting because unlike most World War II-centered films, it doesn't make the Americans particularly appealing.  In fact, it almost goes overboard in making the central characters almost as monstrous as the Nazis being fought.  I don't know whether it is due to the moral relativism in vogue today or to show how war destroys its participants I cannot say.  I can say that Fury is shockingly well-acted (given the cast), sometimes visually splendid, and a tough watch, but one well-worth the effort. 

In the final days of World War II, as the Americans push into Germany, young typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is put on the front lines along with a battle-hardened tank crew headed by Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt).  In his crew are Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Pena), and Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (John Bernthal).  Private Ellison is an eager little trooper but totally unprepared for the true horrors of combat.

He finds that the face of death is not pretty, that the troops have a particularly dark gallows humor about all things, and that the enemy must be completely exterminated.  Wardaddy forces Ellison to shoot an unarmed German soldier in the back by making Ellison hold the pistol and pulling the trigger, horrifying him.  The others in the tank, which is known as Fury, don't really care. 

Fury and the other soldiers take a German town, where they make quick end to the SS officer who had hung children for not wanting to fight.  There is also a long time where while the Americans are occupying the town, Wardaddy and Ellison are entertained, reluctantly, by two German women, Irma and Emma (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg).  They serve the two of them breakfast, Ellison has a brief encounter with one of them, and thinks appear eerily civilized, until the other Fury crew shows up and become lecherous and vulgar in every way.

Well, no worries on that front (no pun intended): an Allied bomb blows up their house after they leave.  Such are the fortunes of war.

They move on, and then we go into a lengthy battle as Fury and the crew make one last stand against a larger German force, where all the crew save Ellison, now nicknamed "Machine", are killed one by one through the long dark night of terror.  They kept to their mission to hold the crossroads they were at, but with a high and bloody cost. 

Fury is a dark, violent picture, one that does not shy away from making war into a brutal business.  Fury's theme is a line that Pitt's Wardaddy tells the newbie.

"Ideas are peaceful.  History is violent".  I'm not sure that either is entirely accurate.  Islamofascism is an idea, and a most violent one at that.  The Czechoslovakian overthrow of Communism was called "The Velvet Revolution" because it was generally peaceful.  The eradication of Nazism in Europe was violent, but Fury on this point doesn't seem to figure that the violence was necessary for it was the only way to expunge it from the Earth before it destroyed civilization. 

I will cut it some slack only because the men prior to Ellison's arrival had witnessed so much death and destruction that it might make them come apart in their souls.

Fury is not a celebration of the mythical fighting man.  This isn't Saving Private Ryan.  In fact, Fury comes close to being the anti-SPR in its depiction of the Americans as, to quote Lawrence of Arabia, "greedy, barbarous, and cruel".    There is little to feel proud regarding the actions of the 'good guys'.  They are cruel, even vicious.  Their dreadful leering and suggestiveness towards civilians, their casual acceptance of killing unarmed prisoners of war, all makes me wonder whether Fury and writer/director David Ayers wanted us to feel that only the uniforms distinguished between the opposing sides.

I can see why some of my more pro-military friends found Fury a tough sell.  In the German town sequence, one didn't feel for the SS commandant that Wardaddy executed for his barbarism towards children, but the American occupiers came across as rather unsavory themselves.  They had no discipline, they had no restraints, they were almost casually indifferent to those dying all around them who WEREN'T American.

However, while Fury has the issue of moral relativism to contend with, it also has another problem that keeps it from really being the great war film Ayers wishes it to be.  The characters in many ways were stereotypes: the "Bible-thumper", the "backwoods hick", the "Mexican who lapses into Spanish".  I found them a bit comical in how they seemed to be one-note, with no complexity or contradictory way to them.  I take that back a bit: sometimes they were contradictory, as Bible was really as vulgar and uncaring as the more obscene Coon-Ass. 

We didn't know anything about what they were pre-war, but I figure we only needed to know that war had destroyed whatever moral compass they once had.  They weren't rampaging throughout the countryside, mind you.  However, I find it hard to believe and accept that American soldiers were as undisciplined and out-of-control as Fury paints them as.

However, there are other elements that push Fury to being an extraordinary film.  The film is visually stunning.  The final extended battle to the death with Fury making a last stand against hundreds of SS fighters looks like one is entering one of the degrees of Hell from Dante's Inferno.  The entire battle sequence was tense and extensive, and here Ayers really brings out what I think Fury wanted to tell us: war is literally hell.   Ayers never gives us a respite from the horrors and chaos and unwieldy nature of combat.  We are put deep within the tank with these somewhat loathsome men.  We are never allowed a moment of peace, reflecting how these men were similarly pushing on not for glory and honor but for survival and to destroy what would destroy them.

I also found that in at least two performances, we got really good deals.  One sometimes forgets that Brad Pitt can push himself to being a serious and genuine actor.  Fury reminds us that he can give a solid performance, as Wardaddy is perhaps the most complex of the men.  He can have Ellison, barely old enough to shave and with no combat experience, kill a man whom he reminds Ellison would kill him without remorse, but who is also aware that even his crew can be too cruel with terrified women caught in the brutality not of their making.  Wardaddy is close to being almost conflicted, and he does have a code where he decides to stay with Fury even after it has been disabled and the SS are on their way. 

Similarly, Logan Lerman is shocking in that he can at least here stumble into a good performance.  I'm open about how conflicted I am on Lerman: sometimes thinking he can act, sometimes thinking he cannot. However, I have to give him credit: as the naïve young man who slowly embraces the killing he is strong and reaches to you with his fears, his doubts, and ultimately his understanding of the sacrifice the Fury crew has made.  He is suppose to be our avatar, and his shocks are our shocks, his despair ours.  At least here, Logan Lerman shows there is potential within him to be a competent actor.

However, I'm still on the fence, for one performance doth not an actor make.

Fury is brutal, sometimes visually beautiful in the brutality it shows, and quite intense visually and emotionally.  The fact that it has such strong performances, such beautiful imagery, and that it is honest and relentless about the horrors of war lift it higher, though the nastiness of the Fury crew makes it a bit remote in how it again comes dangerously close to making our grandfathers as brutal as those who threw men, women, and children into gas chambers.  Still, Fury is a film worth seeing, if only to remind us that in war, the need to survive sometimes pushes everything else out.       


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