Film review: Fury defines itself as a cut above formula

Fury starring Brad Pitt (front), digs in to violence, heroism, and sacrifice on the front lines of World War II. Publicity photo. Fury starring Brad Pitt (front), digs in to violence, heroism, and sacrifice on the front lines of World War II. Publicity photo.

As U.S. involvement in foreign wars becomes murkier, aimless, and self-justifying, it’s perhaps natural that some would nostalgically harken back to a time when the goals of military action were seen as absolute and our methods unimpeachable. Leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, comparisons between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler too were frequent, and our tinted memory of how that war ended fed the belief that the regime would topple cleanly and we would be greeted as liberators.

Enter David Ayer’s World War II tank near-epic, Fury. While the film makes no political case for, or against, war, choosing the final stretch of World War II as its setting seeks to dispel the notion that any fight can be clean. Even the most heroic, necessary actions of its central characters are devastating, and the trauma of seeing and participating in so much death firsthand takes its toll differently on everyone involved.

Fury follows the battle-weary crew of a Sherman tank led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) in the final month of the Allied push toward Berlin. The war is not yet over, and the fighting has become increasingly dirtier and haphazard. The film begins with the crew stuck in the horrific remains of a battle as they attempt to fix their tank and regroup with their division after one of the drivers has died violently. They are assigned a new driver, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who was taken directly from behind a typewriter to the front lines with a crew that has been through the worst with each other.

Gripping from beginning to end, Ayer’s film has three great triumphs and one significant setback. The tone described above is its first triumph, which is held sturdy by an excellent cast, each actor giving potential career-defining performances. In addition to Pitt and Lerman, the film stars Shia LaBeouf, who reminds us of why we paid attention to him in the first place. Michael Peña follows his terrific turn in End of Watch, and Jon Bernthal gives us a glimpse of how he would have played Merle Dixon on “The Walking Dead.”

The second thing that sets Fury apart is its attention to the minutiae of tank strategy, when most war films use them as a quick visual indicator of which side has the upper hand at the moment. Ayer makes every battle involving tanks seem somehow versatile and elegant rather than clunky and metallic. The third most notable aspect comes in the form of a single, extended, one-of-a-kind sequence involving an attempt at normalcy and an exploration of power dynamics in a German town immediately after it’s seized, as both American soldiers and German civilians grasp at straws to remember what humanity feels like.

Everything the film has to say about violence, heroism, justice, and humanity unfortunately goes slightly off course in the final showdown, which discards the close attention to spatial awareness that fueled the tension of the earlier battle sequences, and the interesting examination of the ambiguity of heroism in war gets funneled into the glorious bloodbath of a lesser action movie. It’s a derailment worth noting that works against the electrifying filmmaking that precedes it, but on the whole, Fury is the most significant American war film in recent memory.

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