Fury: Grim and Grimmer
Brad Pitt’s WWII tank epic is a triumph of technique—and a failure of storytelling.
The opening shot of Fury, the brutal saga of an American tank crew in Germany near the close of World War II, is of a Nazi officer on horseback, guiding his mount amid the lifeless hulks of half a dozen burning tanks. It’s an ironic reversal—the past standing victorious over the present—but one that will prove to be short-lived. (We do, after all, know how the war turned out, for Nazis and combat horses alike.) One of the tanks is not so lifeless as it appears, and its commander leaps from the turret, unhorsing the officer and stabbing him to death.
That commander is Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). Over the course of a quick bout of battlefield tank maintenance we meet the rest of his crew: the soulful Christian gunner, Boyd Swan (Shia LaBeouf); the thuggish, hillbilly mechanic, Grady Travis (Jon Bernthal); and the Mexican-American driver Trini Garcia (Michael Peña), who lies somewhere on the middle of the crew’s broad moral spectrum. When their Sherman tank returns to its operating base, they all meet the newest member of their crew, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), an impossibly innocent young recruit who was pulled from a clerical post to become the tank’s assistant driver. His first assignment is to mop up the blood and flesh of the man whose seat he has just inherited.
Written and directed by David Ayer (End of Watch), Fury offers a stark and unforgiving portrait of the closing days of the Good War in the European theater. Shot in hues of gray and brown, it presents a universe of steel and smoke and—most of all—mud: swimming with corpses, littered with dead trees, and endlessly crisscrossed by tank tracks. The performances are strong, and in technical terms the film is above reproach: This is almost certainly the most persuasive depiction of tank warfare yet committed to celluloid. Over the course of its first half-hour, Fury conveys, with visceral intensity, the experience of huddling alone with four other men in a tiny, vulnerable metal shell, while Hell breaks loose all around you. The problem with the film is that, over its subsequent hour and a half, it does little more than repeatedly convey that same experience, albeit at escalating levels of mayhem.
The plot is at once linear and episodic. Following the introductory scenes, Wardaddy and his crew are given a mission by their captain (Jason Isaacs): “I want you to rescue my guys, and take the guns out.” Following the successful completion of this task, the men are given a brief period of R & R in a captured German town. This intermission features an awkward morality play in the apartment of two German lasses, one that serves principally to confirm the First Law of Hollywood: Beautiful people (Pitt, Lerman, German actress Alicia von Rittberg) are inherently good, and ugly people (the leering, slobbering Bernthal) are inherently not. Then it’s back to the senseless yet disappointingly generic horrors of war: “The old man wants you,” Wardaddy is informed. “He’s got a mission.”
Over the final act, grim begets grimmer. Wardaddy and his men are hopelessly outgunned by an enemy Tiger I tank of almost unfathomable impregnability. (A historian and former Army tanker who sat next to me during the screening explained that de facto U.S. policy during the war was that a Tiger could beat eight Shermans, but not ten—so we simply had to build ten of ours for every one of theirs.) The crew encounters an unfortunately placed landmine and, later, a still more unfortunately placed SS battalion.
For fans of military valor and action sequences, Fury offers plenty of both. But as a narrative endeavor, it too becomes an increasingly muddy slog, riddled with clichés and derivative scenes. A callow, boyish lieutenant—too young even to shave!—is introduced in the first reel, only to die quickly so that his war-hardened sergeant can assume command. Lerman’s character will have an opportunity to prove that he is truly sensitive by playing the piano, and Pitt’s will have an opportunity to prove that he is truly Brad Pitt by taking his shirt off. We will be treated to scenes of men perforated with bullets, men hurled skyward by cannon fire, men with their heads blown off, men combusting like campfires, men crushed under tank treads, and—notably—a man already crushed under tank treads whom we watch get further crushed under further tank treads.
What is perhaps most surprising about Fury is the extent to which its final act recalls both prior cinema (in particular, Saving Private Ryan) and the real-life exploits of World War II hero Audie Murphy, who fought off German troops single-handedly by mounting a flaming tank and using its .50 caliber machine gun. In the former case, the disappointment—an almost overwhelming sense of been-there-done-that—is straightforward. In the latter, it’s slightly more complicated. Murphy, after all, was rewarded for his heroism by attaining movie stardom, including a role in one film, To Hell and Back, in which he played himself. He thus served as an immediate model for Fredrick Zoller, the German war-hero-turned-star of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds—a movie that also featured Brad Pitt as an American commander behind Nazi lines. Is this an ironic play on Tarantino’s already irony-besotted epic? Perhaps. But if so, Ayers gives little hint of it in his resolutely stoic, straightforward war film.
All of which is what makes Fury so frustrating. It is too technically refined to be a truly bad movie, but too narratively and thematically stunted to be a good one. In a sense, it succeeds too well in conjuring its own subject matter: heavy, mechanical, claustrophobic, and unrelenting. If you would like to be reminded for two-plus hours exactly why you should be grateful not to be a soldier in a U.S. tank in the closing months of World War II, then you should by all means see the film. For those readers less committed to this ultimately unsurprising thesis, feel free to take my word for it.