In this, the year of our lord two thousand and fifteen, I’ve already seen my fair share of good movies. But I hadn’t seen a great one, one that left me trembling and speechless, one which totally reaffirmed my faith in this kooky thing we call cinema.
You’ll notice that I used “hadn’t” indicating past-tense, because barely a month in to the year, that’s changed. Fury, the World War 2 tank action flick starring Brad Pitt and Shia the Beef and directed by David Ayer, is indeed great. Both as an action film and a drama, Fury soars, impressing with both its beautifully filmed and edited action sequences and powerful acting and dramatic moments. Fury, in a lot of ways, spends most of its two-hours-and-change runtime rejecting things, from the way war movies are so often filmed these days to the sentimentality still seen in World War 2 films to this day.
Fury follows the crew of a World War 2 tank in the European theater during the last years of the war. Brad Pitt plays the commander, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, with the usual war flick crew of the quiet religious guy (The Beef), the at-least-partly psycopathic redneck (Jon Berntal),the smart mouth (Michael Pena) and the wide-eyed new recruit who spends the film getting his innocence and naivete beaten out of him like Amuro freakin’ Ray (Logan Lerman). The film consists of a series of episodes as the crew participate in the slow march across Germany, slowly liberating one town after another.
Given Ayer’s previous work in End of Watch, a gritty quasi-found-footage cop drama, I had an idea of what to expect going in to Fury, which was basically the same set of aesthetics that have been par for the course for WW2 movies since the first scene of Saving Private Ryan. Faded brown and gray color palette, heavy grain in the image, tons of hand-camera work, you know the look I mean. But imagine my surprise when I got basically the exact opposite. Fury‘s visuals are crisp and clean, with a varied (but not overtly so) range of color and a camera that remains active but never too active.
Ayer clearly knows that filming tank battles is a very different thing than filming infantry battles, and that the hand-held, shaky style just wouldn’t work in a style of combat more about strategy and tactics than frantic encounters between soldiers on a battlefield. The tank battle scenes are magnificently filmed, rejecting the idea that the best way to film a battle is to simulate the feeling of actually being in one. The camera always manages to be just the right distance from the action, still maintaining a sense of urgency and drama without assaulting the viewer with sound and…well, fury.
Fury‘s tank battles expertly keep the viewer in the moment while never overwhelming them. And during the non-battle scenes, Ayer demonstrates a great eye for striking shots and compositions, beginning and ending the film on two breathtakingly beautiful shots. The only knock against the visuals is that the tracer rounds used by both sides look a bit too laser-y, and the fact that the Americans and Nazis apparently color-coded green and red tracer rounds had some scenes looking like the ultra-gritty G.I Joe movie we never got. Or hey, maybe World War 2 actually looked like that, I wasn’t there.
Fury has been decisive, and it isn’t hard to see why. The film doesn’t shy away from showing some of the less heroic side of American soldiers during the war, including the use of White Phosphorous rounds, the execution of prisoners and the brutality with which new recruits were “broken in.”
But Fury doesn’t portray its protagonists and sadists and psychopaths barely removed from their cartoonishly evil enemies (like some other Brad Pitt-helmed war films….), instead treading a careful line between portraying the camaraderie and ultimate nobility of some men in the conflict, while never shying away from the fact that others just really enjoyed killing people. And in between the two, innocence usually winds up getting crushed like a flower under the treads of the tank that houses our protagonists.
In films set during other, more recent conflicts, this kind of moral ambiguity has come to be expected. You don’t watch a Vietnam movie for heroism, most of the time. World War 2, for a lot of Americans, is different, the last time true good clashed with true evil.
Fury has what some would call the gall and others would call the balls to shine a light on that supposed true good, portraying the capital-G Greatest generation in a less than flattering light. In today’s climate of patriotic chest-thumping, that takes guts in my book.
But what’s important is that Fury isn’t shining a light on these men and their less-than-honorable deeds to vilify them, but war itself. War has made these men what they are, because that’s the only way they’ve been able to survive, and the only way they believe their new recruit will survive is to become as batshit war-crazy as they are.
I won’t tell you if it works or not, but watching it happen is at times more gut-wrenching than any of the battle scenes, and the dangling question mark at the end of Fury‘s question of “is it worth it?” is the most lethal bullet in Ayer’s chamber.