October 30, 2014
“Fury” Proves the Term ‘Great War Movie’ is an Oxymoron
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
In the late 1960s, when it looked like I could wind up fighting in Vietnam, I imagined utter horrors of the sort director-writer David Ayers devastatingly delivers in his WWII opus, “Fury.” This is terrible stuff, an adrenalin-exploding, mind-boggling journey through the evil dreads mankind is capable of perpetrating. So unless you’re a military enthusiast or feel you need a reminder of why General William Tecumseh Sherman said “War is hell,” then it might be a good idea to skip this superbly crafted revulsion.
Ironically enough, the five-man crew that battles its way behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany, circa April 1945, mans a Sherman tank. Led by Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, masterfully portrayed by Brad Pitt, they are familiar war movie types delineated with an extra dose of brutality courtesy of the scenario’s no-holds-barred severity. Few atrocities are left unturned. Your head spins in a conflicted combination of shocked disbelief and mournful cognizance.
Dipping into the library of battle-scarred clichés, Mr. Ayer introduces raw recruit Private Norman Ellison into the claustrophobic, iron-clad confines of the tank. Shades of “The Red Badge of Courage,” Logan Lerman does the symbolic stereotype justice. You’ve seen this all before, but never in such high relief. Just as the nightmare of war is always intensified through technological advances, so, too, is its graphic depiction.
Although it’s not as obviously mystical as “Apocalypse Now” (1979), aspiring more to the realism of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), it is no surprise to learn that said Coppola tour de force is auteur Ayers’s favorite film. And while no one in the tin can that has been their home for three years — from North Africa, to Belgium, to France and now Germany — remarks, “Hey, this is like something Joseph Conrad might have written,” there is philosophical metaphor both harsh and bittersweet.
In one memorable scene, during a brief respite from the practically non-stop action, Mr. Pitt’s acknowledged juggernaut and leader of men personified allows a glimmer of the humanity he has suppressed. His weary eyes reflecting the memories he doesn’t let weaken his hard-bitten resolve, he sits with Norman at a kitchen table with a Frau and a Fräulein in a town they’ve just captured. In only a few words and gestures, Wardaddy disseminates the great contrasts between the good and bad of what we call civilization.
Otherwise, the plot is simple: kill or be killed as four tanks that remain operational attempt to clear a path to Berlin. The fighting is relentless. Hitler, by now presumably in his bunker, has called for total war. The Germans send young teenagers to the front. Amidst the muck, mire and devastation of the American onslaught, one soldier lamentingly asks the Sarge, “Why don’t they
just quit?” Pitt looks at him and tellingly responds, “Would you?”
We fear how this might end, but nonetheless hope that the quirky, ragtag crew with whom we’ve become acquainted will survive this unthinkable scourge. They gain our emotional investment, especially the multilayered warrior who leads them. Over his career, Brad Pitt has admirably risen above his initial pretty boy image. But here, he really shows us something. Imparting his signature to the iconic, battle-scarred sergeant, we are moved and intrigued.
Likewise, despite how hackneyed Logan Lerman’s novitiate is first presented, we soon line up behind him. Fact is, in a democratic republic at war, where the citizen soldier is more the rule than the exception, we are essentially all Normans, regular sorts tossed into a crucible from which man has not yet been able to evolve or extricate himself. Witnessing the carnage, we can’t help but join history’s great thinkers in pondering, ‘How can minds capable of so many wonderful things persist in this insanity?’
Not that Jon Bernthal’s Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis, the down and dirty tank mechanic, gives that any thought. He figures he’s better off just fighting. Whereas Boyd Swan, the resident Bible thumper, medic and killing machine played by Shia LaBeouf, has accepted the contradictions of his plight. Completing the ensemble, Michael Peña is likable as Trini “Gordo” Garcia, your fast talking and convivial comrade in arms.
It is a disservice to those who have fought our wars to say a film is realistic. Thus, knowing that actual war is unimaginably worse than this absolute inferno strikes cold terror in us. Watching the painfully heartfelt homage to our soldiers, I couldn’t help but think back to Mr. Krupman, the corner candy store guy of my childhood. He had been to WWII, and now here he was in peace, not saying a thing about it, making me an egg salad sandwich as I spun on the stool. The frustration of trying to reconcile it all is indeed a cause for “Fury.”
“Fury,” rated R, is a Sony Pictures release directed by David Ayer and stars Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman and Jon Bernthal. Running time: 134 minutes