“History is violent,” Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt) explains to a nervous recruit after forcing him to execute an unarmed S.S. Officer. Norman (Logan Lerman) is a recent transfer into Wardaddy’s notoriously effective five-man tank unit, and the timid typist has been summoned to fill the role of machine-gunner. His first official order is to scrub the remains of his predecessor’s face off his new seat.
So begins David Ayer’s Fury, a viscerally unsettling but familiar World War II drama.
Although the Germans have begun their retreat by April 1945, the war is far from over. The men of the aptly named ‘Fury’ tank, represented by Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal demand their new gunner grow up — and quickly. They are a family forged in the crucible of some of the goriest battles of the European theater and their concern for Norman’s naïveté is not unfounded. Fury deals mostly with Norman’s maturation and the development of an espirit de corps amongst the Fury tank operators within the broader context of the Allies final push towards Berlin.
Stylistically, the film represents an innovative approach to the cinematic World War II sub-genre. Here tank warfare becomes the primary vehicle through which psychological drama unfolds, and this new vision of warfare is one of unyielding claustrophobia. Considerable time is spent in tight frames inside the tank as the men advance into Germany after being tasked with various assignments of regrettable simplicity. For for all its visual authenticity, its calculated depth of field and commendable photography, Fury’s stylistic innovations are hindered by the lamentable infusion of all-too-prominent action-thriller conventions. Anachronistic Twenty-first century idiomatic expressions and an utter failure to explore the Nazi opponents — who come off, like they have in so many films prior, as nothing more than machines in a soulless, nebulous horde — detract from an otherwise technically sound movie.
Despite these deficiencies there is an artistry evidenced from the desolate opening frame through the film’s thought-provoking closing shot, and while Fury fails to answer some of its own elemental questions with any conviction, it’s bold in aspiring to investigate war through a theological lens. The title suggests a possible allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and for just over two hours the movie challenges the implicit agnosticism in the idea that man’s struggle “signifies nothing”, a readily drawn conclusion in attempting to understand war. Its fundamentally Christian veins champion transcendence through sacrifice, yet it is not a film preoccupied solely with conversion — though it may appear so at times. The final shot is hauntingly beautiful, but of greater significance, it is thematically revealing.
It’s impossible not to compare any new filmic WWII iteration to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). As the benchmark against which all recent visions are critically scrutinized, Ayer’s Fury falls short. He hasn’t destabilized the genre like he did with Training Day (2001) or even End of Watch (2012), but regardless he’s crafted a film worth seeing.