“Fury” opens with a lone German soldier on a horse, surveying a ruined battlefield, stacked deep with lifeless bodies, and burnt out tanks. After a few moments of silence and fog, Don Collier (Brad Pitt) leaps from one of the machines, onto the soldier, and mercilessly rends his neck open with a blade.
Director David Ayer (“Training Day”, “End of Watch”) draws interest with his casting of Brad Pitt, who also played a Nazi killer in “Inglorious Basterds”, however, these two films are clearly in separate veins, we hope. “Fury” tells less the tale of the ever-wonderful Pitt, and more of rookie Norman Ellison, who takes the place of Don’s recently deceased tank driver, and war friend. Norman isn’t welcome in the tank because of his trainee status. He joins Gordo (Michael Peña), Bible, (Shia LaBeouf), and Grady Travis (John Bernthal). Don’s team is tasked to take German territory from the regime in the waning years of Hitler’s reign in WWII.
Each character is their own archetype. Don, the hard-hitting commander, who puts a bullet into any German without a blink. Bible is, well you guessed it, clinging to his KJV and taking every verse he can out of context in order to justify the war and his actions. Gordo is the hispanic frontman, and Grady is a southern boy, who’s also a mannerless pig. We meet a couple other tank captains and battle commanders, but the focus here is on the action of tank coordination and squad dynamics.
Straight up, every good war movie is about the horrors of war, but unfortunately, modern gaming like the “Call of Duty” franchise acts towards glorification of placing a gun in your hand and putting rounds in someone of a different skin color, just because your government told you to. On the flip side, critics argue that every war film, despite its honorary status (“Apocalypse Now”, “Saving Private Ryan”), simply because of its topic and success, acts on a pro-war agenda. Yes, we see the death of soldiers on both sides, but ultimately, each foot soldier only acts upon their license to kill because their government has told them it is necessary. Was Nazi Germany counted as righteous in their systematic slaughter of the Jews? Maybe that’s off-topic here, because Ayer wisely sidesteps the issue, as it opens an entirely new can of worms.
Why I even mentioned mishandling themes, or “Call of Duty” in the last paragraph, is because I fear Ayer has unintentionally sent mixed messages. “Fury” does a fine job of humanizing both American and German foot soldiers. In fact, there are moments when I felt more compassion for dying Germans, than the American troops. In addition, “Fury” does an excellent job of humanizing regular German civilians. This is timely, because if we are honest, when Americans think of Islam, or the Middle East, we lump them all into one category: terrorists. This is a gross and unfair stereotype of an entire culture of people who aren’t. Can we perhaps liken the extremist Muslims with the German SS agents portrayed in “Fury”? Brutal to the end, containing vicious hatred for any non-Aryan? Maybe. Maybe this is what Ayer is trying to communicate to us here. For that reason alone, I think “Fury” is successful. It’s a desperately needed message for an unfortunately ignorant culture (which, I cannot separate myself from, because I too have fallen into such an arrogant ethnocentric view of the outside world).
My issue with “Fury” lies not in the sanctity of precious human life, but instead with the tone and mood. I’m not a soldier, nor do I pretend to be one, nor do these actors pretend to understand the turmoil of actually ending another man’s life and dreams. I’m sure it’s the few moments of joy and laughter a man experiences with his squad, joking about Hitler being a homosexual, after killing over a hundred men. These moments might help to move past the horrible actions you were commanded for. It’s the tension of assuming Don might actually be a raucous grunt, aiming to rape a young German teenager, to feed his carnal desires (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. He’s apparently a better man than that). It’s the uneasiness of taking a lone stand at a crossroad to hold off 300 foot soldiers.
Ayer wants to communicate to us not only the uniqueness of tank warfare, but also the many facets of humanity. However, when a tank shell decapitates an American soldier, and I hear the words “that was awesome” in the audience, I cannot help but feel hopeless and defeated. Battle is ugly and graphic, but in no situation would I ever hope for shocked and muffled audience laughter after the people Ayer tried to humanize are ceased immediately. I refuse to believe my theater was the lone example. There is something about how Ayer shifts gears from deeply emotional to suddenly comically violent. I don’t think this is intentional, but it shows me problems with pacing, and while there is a time for a laugh or two, it can’t be at the crossroads of thematic storytelling. Films were created originally for entertainment, but as time as passed, they exist for infinitely more.
I aim this review carefully to not exclude myself as I sit, hoisted up on a golden pedestal of exemplary mindset, “oh, look at how pure and wonderful and smart I am.” No, these are my observations, and I worry so very consistently for those who go to the theater just because Brad Pitt looks so hard atop a battle tank that he’s going to use to kill a bunch of Nazi scum. I am no better, because I enjoyed over-the-top violence in “Django Unchained”, yet believe it or not, Tarantino aimed comedic violence at whites, and scrutinized over the long, painful, uncomfortable sequences of African-American torture. I can only hope that we learn to critically think on what we watch, and what the director and writer are trying to teach us.
The religious themes of “Fury” are a bit much for me to discuss in this review, but I’m very open to revisiting them, or your disagreements with my thoughts present, in the comments section below.