Review: Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt as a battle-hardened army sergeant nicknamed “Wardaddy.” WWII tank combat. The ferocity and carnage of the Allied invasion of Nazi Germany. Fury sounds like a recipe for a solid war movie, maybe even a great one, yet despite my admiration for certain aspects, I feel like the film isn’t entirely sure what it’s about.

Part of this has to do with the film’s approach to war. There is a conventional line of thinking that says war movies are either pro-war or anti-war. Since you pretty much can’t talk about Fury without invoking the cliché, “war is hell,” you might think it falls into the anti-war category. Certainly, Fury does a good job of depicting the horrific results of warfare: part of a driver’s face is cleaned off the inside of a tank; Allied troops rape and pillage German towns; a new recruit is forced to shoot a “Kraut” prisoner. These are just a few of the horrible things we witness in the film, but already you’ll notice that writer-director David Ayer is interested in showing the evils committed by the Allied soldiers—the good guys, if you will. Of course, the Nazis are still bad—we see the hanging corpses of German civilians who had refused to resist the Allied invasion—but Ayer focuses on how war brings out the worst in everybody. And so, Fury must be anti-war, right?

Another, more revisionary, more serpentine line of thought says that the kinetic, exciting nature of action cinema makes every war film pro-war to some degree. Depictions of combat inevitably excite viewers, take hold of their emotions, and therefore implicate them in the war being depicted. In other words, how does a filmmaker not make war exciting and therefore appealing in some way? While I have my reservations about this second line of thought (particularly its totalizing argument), Fury is a good example of how a film’s depiction of violence is just as much a shaper of a film’s attitude towards war as the narrative and dialogue. For instance, the suspenseful, tightly choreographed one-on-one tank battle, something I’d never seen onscreen before, is undeniably exciting. Likewise, the final stand is shot and edited well enough to rouse the viewer and make us happy to see the SS squadron mowed down by the tank’s guns.

Is this because Fury is fundamentally ambiguous about war? Is it refusing to give easy answers? Is it suggesting human nature’s internal divide, the conflict between our compassion and our bloodlust? Or is it just unclear? After one viewing, I’m not sure.

And what are we to make of Brad Pitt’s Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier. Our first image of Collier is him stabbing a German through the eye, but later in the film he’s one of the few to treat the German women with some (but not complete) decency. We’re shown his bloodlust, but also moments alone when he appears sad and weary. The sergeant has lead his tank crew, consisting of Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), through North Africa, Italy, and France. Collier’s repeated—and probably accurate—justification is that you have to be hard to survive war. War’s about killing, so kill and live. After they lose a crewman, Sgt. Collier must take on a fresh, soft former army typist, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), and in contrast to the initially innocent Ellison, Collier’s character appears even more divided.

To be sure, Pitt’s “Wardaddy” is memorable, but he seems to have been overly calculated to be memorable. (I do have to give Ayer and Pitt credit, however, since although “Wardaddy” recalls Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds, they actually manage to escape the shadow of that film.) Collier is given the right amount of hardness, badassery, occasional empathy, and shrewd judgement to make him both likeable and aloof, tough yet fair, but the mix never coheres into a fully formed, breathable character in my opinion. He remains a type of the divided, enigmatic commander. Likewise, the crew members are well-realized on screen, but how they’re drawn in the screenplay really isn’t as nuanced as some critics are gushing. (The exception might be LeBeouf’s “Bible,” who expresses a more realistic, lived-in faith than most movies are able to muster.)

All this isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the film and that it doesn’t have its strengths. I was excited by the action and intrigued by the themes. The characters are strong enough to like, if not to be deeply attached to. There’s plenty that works.

While it’s always easy to compare a WWII film to the many out there, and they all unavoidably tread similar ground (there’s no surprises in the plot or characters here), I also have to add that it was enjoyable to simply see a decent WWII movie on the big screen. It’d been a while.

There’s a moment midway through the film that seems to encapsulate my ambivalence towards Fury, and my difficulty evaluating it. Sgt. Collier and a commander are looking at maps and discussing strategy. At one point, the commander asks aloud why the Germans just don’t quit. With a grim yet sensible expression, Pitt’s “Wardaddy” replies, “Would you?” It’s a great line that drives at the film’s interest in troubling uncomplicated visions of the Second World War, but the shot jump cuts too quickly to the next scene. A few more seconds and perhaps some sort of transition would have given that question, delivered well by Pitt, much greater impact. Instead, we only get bits and pieces of a great war film.

7 out of 10

Fury (2014, USA)

Written and directed by David Ayer; starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal.