Fury (David Ayer, 2014)
The opening shot of Fury – the new film from writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) – is at first hard to decipher. Are we looking at treetops, over which a rising sun peeks? The shapes are fuzzy and colorless, but as a solitary figure – a horseman – slowly rises on the horizon, we realize we are looking at a battlefield; a field of clumps of dirt, in fact, rutted and pitted by tanks and dying men. It’s an apt image, for this will be a movie about dirty warfare. Dirt and grime are everywhere, and nowhere more present than on the soldiers who fight the battles, both on their faces and in their souls. It is April, 1945, and World War II is about to come to a close, though some of the fiercest fighting lies ahead, particularly for the crewmen of the “Fury,” so dubbed by the tight-knit band under “Wardaddy” Sergeant Collier’s command.
Wardaddy is played with an amazing combination of brio and reserve by Brad Pitt, who just last summer battled an equally deadly – if fantastical – enemy in World War Z. Here, he is just as resourceful, and a hell of a lot tougher, his body and face covered with burns and scars. Right after that horseman enters frame, the camera following and panning over to what looks to be a disabled tank, Wardaddy leaps from out of nowhere, knife in hand, stabs the rider (a dreaded German SS officer, as it turns out), and then jabs his knife into the man’s eye socket. It is the first of many gruesome close-ups of carnage: the film does not stint on the horrors of combat; soon, we will see a melted human face on a tank seat. Again, an apt image, for our own faces are literally shoved into the blood of the wounded and killed, time and again. This is one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying the brutality of war.
Wardaddy’s men – a motley crew made up of Michael Peña (Cesar Chavez), Shia LaBeouf (Lawless) and Jon Bernthal (Shane Walsh on “The Walking Dead“), all excellent – all with war monikers of their own, are devoted to their leader, who has kept them alive since their first battles in Africa three years ago. As the film opens, they have just lost one of their gunners (that melted face), and HQ has decided to give them a green army novice, Norman (a terrific Logan Lerman, so good as the lead in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as well), who becomes our surrogate in the nasty classroom of tank warfare. When he, early on, hesitates to fire on the enemy, Wardaddy forces him to shoot a German prisoner of war, in cold blood. This is also one of the best films I have ever seen at portraying morally compromised main characters that demand our sympathies, or at least our full attention.
The problems for the men of the Fury are many. The Germans just won’t give up, and their tanks – designed by Porsche – are superior. It will take everything these guys have got to fulfill their mission and survive the war. The movie – to its credit – is less interested in potential happy outcomes than in exploring the moral and physical toll that prolonged combat inflicts on its participants. There is a marvelous scene halfway through the film where the Americans have successfully captured a German town – after immense casualties – and Wardaddy and Norman treat themselves to an interlude with two female (German) cousins hiding in their apartment. Is it rape? As Wardaddy tells Norman: “Ideals are peaceful; history is violent.” There’s certainly coercion at play, yet these two men turn out to be far more civilized than their fellow soldiers. The way Ayer plays with our expectations (and our need to like the protagonists) is brilliant, and sets up the greater violence to follow.
And that violence is magnetic: the battle scenes are intense, like nothing I have seen since the opening of Saving Private Ryan (though I did also find much to admire in Lone Survivor, released in January of this year). During each and every one, I was on the edge of my seat.
Where the film is less successful is in its occasional post-battle montages, filled with the overly sentimental strains of the score by composer Steven Price (Gravity). The ending, in particular, overuses Price’s music as the camera cranes high above the final battlefield (a nice visual echo of the opening). Still, that misstep notwithstanding, this is a powerful movie that deserves its place in the canon of great war (and/or antiwar) films of yore.