I am always giddy when war films are announced and open. Perhaps that emotion is not the most suitable one for a genre that wrenchingly reveals the best and worst of human nature, but I am what I am. War films have evolved dramatically since John Wayne was single-handedly defeating the Japanese in Flying Tigers and the Fighting Seabees. Wayne’s films were sometimes unvarnished portraits of patriotism, while more modern takes focus on the mixed motives of those at war, occasionally even arguing for a moral equivalence between soldiers regardless of their cause (Platoon or Apocalypse Now).
Fury, written and directed by David Ayer, is both traditional and modern. The soldiers are often brave and selfless, and the Americans are unquestionably on the right side of World War 2, but the tank crew around which the story revolves is a complex jumble of personalities.
Brad Pitt, who provides equal measures of star power and gravity, is Wardaddy, a fierce and ruthless sergeant who guides his men and their tank through horrors that eventually numb them. Wardaddy wants to defeat Germany and he plans to do what is needed to achieve that end, but he also seeks to protect his crew. The story is most gripping when those desires conflict.
Pitt’s crew is rounded out by Bible (Shia LaBeouf), the skilled gunner who is trying to save some souls and send others to eternity. Religion, as it flows through Bible, is handled better here than in most scenarios, but his character is too truncated to say Fury has a religious theme. Michael Peńa plays Gordo, the cold-eyed driver, and Jon Bernthal is Grady, a southern rustic loader who verges on lunacy. We are introduced to the crew through Norman’s (Logan Lerman) eyes, a soldier trained as a clerk who gets plopped down into a support role inside the tank. Fury‘s use of this cliché is one of its few mis-steps, though it recovers by using Norman’s character as an example of how war tarnishes all, especially the innocent.*
The plot is simple. It is April, 1945, and the war is winding down, though the German resolve is still stiff. Eventually, Wardaddy’s crew is dispatched to hold a vital crossroads. The support units that come along to help are ground down through attrition, leaving the solitary tank an impossible task, which the men eventually embrace. Though there are several battle sequences, all of which are excellent, the skirmish between the tank and a column of German troops takes up the latter part of the plot.
The Furies in Greek mythology were deities of wrath, females who, in The Iliad, “take vengeance on him who shall swear falsely.” This tank, with “Fury” painted on its main gun, aims at the SS, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party that was known, even then, for war atrocities, like coercing young children into their ranks. Wardaddy, and his men, seem to distinguish the average German soldier, often portrayed as simply doing his duty, from the SS, who, I assume, have violated the unspoken oaths that bind true soldiers together, even when they represent different flags.
How war films conclude reveal much of their character. Can war provide a possibility of justice, no matter how flawed, or is it a monument to futility, where everyone is a casualty? Fury doesn’t dodge the question, and, as most good war films, strikes a balance between these extremes.
Movies that cultivate moral ambiguity often portray either the humanity or the depravity of all sides in a particular conflict, while the simplistic films provide two-dimensional cut-outs of heroes and villains. Fury, which never challenges America’s overall righteousness as it invades Germany, is more nuanced. Some of the men, like Bible, are essentially good, while others, like Grady, are twisted in ways that war alone cannot cause. Bible and Grady present the two American faces–the religiously motivated guise that tries, though sometimes fails, to do good for the proper reasons, and the uncouth, trigger-happy cowboy who bathes in the darkness. Wardaddy holds these opposites together in the same character.
Fury‘s biggest contribution to the genre is that it reveals how these men, regardless of their decency, or lack of it, are as scarred by their own actions as they are by the wounds they suffer. In this way, Fury‘s lamentation is that in spite of the justice of America’s cause, its soldiers must always bear a burden that only war brings. The costs for the dead and their families are obvious, but the consequences for the survivors are more obscure but still devastating.
Fury, as might be expected, is a graphically violent film and its soldiers speak in the terms common to soldiers since the beginning of time, so those who might be offended at such things should steer clear. For those of you willing to endure it, Fury is worth your time and attention.
Final Grade: 2.5/3 Eggheads
*(SPOILER ALERT: The other major mistake, at least for me, was the scene in which Wardaddy forces Norman to shoot an unarmed German simply to prove a point. Though it was tense and well acted, the scene struck only false notes and threatened the film’s verisimilitude.)