As long as there have been movies, there have been movies on or about war. More to the point, there have been commentaries on the bravery of the men and women who fight for the ideals they have sworn to protect and how the perils of war affects the state of mind of dedicated soldiers. The best war movies don’t revel in or glorify the physical actions of war, nor do they dwell heavily on the mental or physical ramifications of those acts so as to become overly melodramatic. They take care to balance both aspects to understand the mentality of people who choose (or are elected) to participate in such intense, and in some cases unthinkable, situations. That exploration plays a major part in Fury, the new World War II drama that does a terrific job presenting this mindset, even though it can’t seem to find a strong narrative footing to represent its characters.
The Fury of the title is the moniker of a tank that’s seen its fair share of battles and survived, despite being outarmored and outgunned by the more sophisticated Nazi tanks. Part of the reason for this miraculous subsistence is the tank’s crew, led by the quietly focused Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). His team of cynical mercenaries include gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and loader Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). Their camaraderie from working as a team for an undisclosed amount of years is second to none — even though they constantly push each others buttons and get on each others nerves, they never lose respect for each other. Trust is a valuable commodity that they can’t take for granted because it’s helped keep them alive.
All four actors are incredible in how they interact with one another. We first meet them on a war-torn battlefield attempting to fix their tank. The banter displayed in this subdued, yet taut scene clarifies each of the characters. They are all very similar, sharing the same disposition for the war (as well as their love for what they do), but each is a complex individual all his own that we are able to identify with in some way. It’s all very telling of a group of men who have seen far too much and have found a way to deal with the travesties in their own specific ways. Swan turns to the Bible to find comfort in what he must do; Travis finds his contentment in bedding local woman and prostitutes; and Garcia tries to find the humor in everything.
What’s most affecting, though, is when these things don’t help and we see the cracks begin to appear in the armor. Collier is very stoic about his demeanor when it comes to his showing leadership and putting on a brave face to keep his team calm and centered. But while burying his fears and anxiety as deep as he can, sometimes they come boiling up to the surface, forcing him to find a remote spot where he can drop to his knees and break down. Though he struggles to contain whatever emotions are trying to break free, Pitt does an outstanding job conveying the torture of every death this man has had to initiate. War has torn him down and built him back up so many times, it may appear he has been desensitized to it all, but deep down, he is just as frightened as everyone else.
That includes Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a green communications recruit pulled from basic training and assigned to Collier’s crew to replace the driver assistant the team lost in the previous, unseen battle. His introduction to the crew can be considered a bit mean-spirited as they interrogate him about where he comes from and what type of Christian he is, but when you consider they just lost a partner and don’t yet trust the new guy to have their backs, it’s actually necessary to haze him a bit to make sure he fits into their world. It’s obvious from the start that he doesn’t fit in at all, which causes some very tense animosity between them.
The bulk of the story revolves around the relationship between Norman and Collier, who sees the idealistic sensibilities and moral upbringing in Norman that he lost long ago. On one hand, he wants to protect Norman as a father and preserve these aspects as much as he can, but then again, Collier can’t trust Norman if he refuses to be a soldier and defend him and his crew at every turn. Collier tries several different tactics to bring the man out of the boy, from verbally scolding him for not shooting a kid that helped destroy one of the tanks in their convoy, to forcing him to shoot a Nazi soldier who has all but surrendered. Nothing works until he brings him aside and treats him as a friend; a young man who deserves respect and the chance to make his own decisions.
After capturing a city that the Americans find to be a strategic win, Collier takes Norman to an apartment occupied by a couple of women. He expresses respect by offering the women eggs and asking to have them cook breakfast, and when the younger girl flirts with Norman, he insists they retreat to the bedroom for some “alone time.” Later, when all four are about to have breakfast, the rest of the crew storms in, a bit drunk and a bit jealous, hellbent on telling a story about having to kill horses. It’s a story — an event — that Collier loathes, not only because he despises being reminded of having to participate in such an act, but because he doesn’t want that dark image to become ingrained in his protege.
Being a part of these men’s journey is compelling, to say the least. It’s raw, it’s real and it’s occasionally hard to watch. However, the character arcs themselves come off as weaker than the actors portray them, due to the convenient structure of David Ayer’s screenplay. Characters alter their motivations and their reasoning for actions not based on a natural progression (if there was any at all), but based on what attitude was needed at any given time. This is most evident in Norman, who’s arc bounces around like a ping-pong ball of highs and lows — moral integrity to vengeful soldier — without a clear or distinct evolution. This may simply be the way it works when you’re knee deep in the middle of a battlefield, but for the purposes of this film, it comes across forced.
Then there’s Ayer’s odd choice in using Star Wars-style laser effects and firework pyrotechnics that do more harm than good during the battle sequences. It detracted from the intensity of the performances and the editing style that should have drawn me in, especially during the final battle when the odds were stacked against our heroes. I was unable to get emotionally invested in the moment because I was too focused on the trajectory of every bullet’s contrail across the battlefield. It just didn’t make sense to me why such an effective drama needed to be enhanced in this way — all it does in the long run is force the film to go from authentically spiritual to outrageously silly with the snap of a finger.
Suffice it to say, the emotional beats of the film are spot on. If only there were a strong story to balance out this character study, the movie might have been closer to being one of the best war films ever made. However, there isn’t much of a story to hold everything together. Collier and his team go on seemingly random missions that don’t have much to do with one another (other than being part of the same war), which caused me to separate from the cause. Yeah, I get it — the whole point is to kill Nazis and win the war. But in the structure of this one particular story as a part of the overall picture of World War II, there is no reason to tell it.
My Grade: B+
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