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Josh Reviews Fury

I missed David Ayer’s film Fury when it came out last year, and I’ve been looking forward to catching up with it.  Set in final months of World War II, the film tells the story of a United States tank crew during the Allied invasion of Germany.  Brad Pitt plays “Wardaddy,” the commander of the Sherman tank called “Fury.”  Michael Pena plays “Gordo,” the tank’s driver.  Shia LaBeouf plays the gunner “Bible.”  Jon Bernthal plays “Coon-Ass,” the weapons-loader.  And Logan Lerman plays Norman, the new assistant driver/bow-gunner assigned to “Fury” to replace their comrade “Red,” killed in action immediately prior to the start of the film.

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There is a lot of greatness in the first two-thirds of Fury.  What I enjoyed most about the film is its exploration of WWII tank warfare, and the experiences of the men who lived and fought in the belly of those steel beasts (to borrow a phrase from Henry Jones Sr.).  This is not an area that has been well-mined by many previous films.  David Ayer’s direction is visceral and tense, putting the viewer right in the thick of some harrowing sequences.  The film is exceedingly well-made, with enormous attention to detail in the costumes, sets, props, and most of all the tanks.  Mr. Ayer succeeds in making the tank Fury a full-fledged character in the story, through the accumulation of a million tiny details captured in the film.

The cast is strong, bringing life to the loosely-sketched characters.  One feels that each one of these characters could have been the lead of the film, which is exactly right.  After the greatness of Inglorious Basterds, it’s fun seeing Brad Pitt back in a WWII film.  Though “Wardaddy” is the clear alpha dog of the group (not just because of his position as commander), Mr. Pitt allows this character to show more humanity than did Aldo Raine in Basterds, which is appropriate for the role.  I frickin’ love Michael Pena in the film, an actor who seems to me to be able to do no wrong these days.  (See: Ant Man.)  He’s able to bring humor to the film, while never ever loosing sight of the seriousness that the role calls for.  Shia LaBeouf meanwhile has become something of a joke these days, but he does solid work here.  Jon Bernthal is great as “Coon-Ass.”  He’s a viscous jerk in many ways (his nick-name is not ironic), but Mr. Bernthal also allows the audience to see the human being underneath the bluster.  Finally there is Logan Lerman, who I will love forever based on his tremendous work in The Perks of Being a Wallflower Mr. Lerman has the somewhat thankless role of “the rookie,” a role that I would have thought might have been made obsolete after Saving Private Ryan.  Norman has a fairly predictable arc, but Mr. Lerman does his best to imbue the character with a heart and with a soul.

For quite a while, Fury is pretty terrific.  There is an excruciatingly tense tank combat sequence in which four U.S. tanks, led by Fury, take on a German Tiger tank.  It’s worth watching Fury for this sequence alone.  It’s masterfully executed by Mr. Ayer and his team.  Mr. Ayer puts us right in the middle of the whole bloody mess, stuck inside of Fury as their situation grows increasingly more desperate.  It’s pretty terrific stuff.

Even days after watching the film, I am still not sure quite what to make of a bizarre extended sequence in the middle of the film in which the Fury team stop in a German town, Norman gets laid, and he and Wardaddy have breakfast with two German women until they are interrupted by the rest of the Fury crew, acting their most despicable.  After watching Fury I read some reviews of the film on-line, and I see that many reviewers strongly objected to this sequence.  There’s no question to me that this long sequence feels wildly out of place, tonally, in the film, though I suspect that is what David Ayer was going for.  To me, the sequence is about Wardaddy trying hard to hold onto some semblance of civility in his life, a life that the war has filled with blood and horror.  Still, it’s hard to track the character arc of Wardaddy through this, seeing as how not-too-much earlier in the film this character had been trying to get Norman to execute an unarmed German prisoner.  More problematic is that it feels to me that the film is setting up Norman’s sexual encounter with the young German girl as a consentual event, a nice touch of teenage normalcy in the middle of the war.  And yet, come on, two armed soldiers barge into these these women’s apartment, and drag the terrified girl out from her hiding place under the bed?  Her having sex with Norman doesn’t read as very consentual to me, which gives an unpleasant coloring to the whole thing.

And yet, while I have problems with that sequence, it doesn’t ruin the film for me.  I can live with an uneven, complicated digression in the middle of a war movie.  I respect Mr. Ayer for what he was trying to do by including that sequence in his film, even as I don’t feel the sequence was entirely successful.

No, what more damages Fury as a whole for me is the ending (beware SPOILERS so stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film, I mean it!)  in which the Fury crew heroically sacrifice themselves to stop a group of hundreds of SS officers.  While the first two-thirds of Fury seemed rigorously realistic, a film designed to strip away Hollywood glamour to show us what life was really like for the young men who fought this war inside of tanks, the ending seems to me to make a sharp left-hand turn into movie fantasy.  First, I’m just not sure I buy that these men would make the choice to stay and die.  Understand me: I am not for a moment questioning the extraordinary heroism of the young men who fought in WWII, nor do I have any doubt that most soldiers would gladly give up their lives to save their brothers in arms.  It’s just that the film so stacks the odds against the Fury unit, making it so clear that their staying and fighting is beyond hopeless, that I just don’t buy their decision to stay.  Second, the havoc that the Fury team is able to wreak on the SS company, despite their being outnumbered 300-to-5, feels like total lunacy to me.  That the SS troops couldn’t defeat these 5 guys in an unmoving, broken-down sitting target, just feels ridiculous to me.  And so while I like being able to cheer at a heroic movie last stand as much as the next guy, this sort of ending feels totally out of place in the movie that I thought I’d been watching.  (Also, that Norman could miraculously survive also seems like a fantasy to me.)  I’m left scratching my head at the decisions that Mr. Ayer made in this third act.

Despite those objections, I still quite enjoyed Fury and I really respect and admire the care and attention to detail that Mr. Ayer and his team put into the making of this film.  This is an important story to tell, and it’s always exciting to see a WWII story that explores an as-yet-unmined area of that conflict.  Fury certainly succeeds in reminding audiences of the extraordinary heroism of the young men who fought — and the many who died — in these theatres of WWII.

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