Vafa Motamedi reviews war film Fury.
A war film is a tricky thing to make. Beyond all the pyrotechnics and battle choreography that come with the territory, the filmmakers have to wrestle with the key problem that seems to plague most war movies both good and bad. How can you possibly convey the horror of war accurately whilst simultaneously trying to entertain the audience? Does the very act of portraying war in some sense glorify it?
It’s a question that writer-director David Ayer attempts to grapple with in his new film Fury. Starring Brad Pitt as a battle hardened tank commander, the film follows a single tank as it slowly works its way through the German countryside during the last few months of World War II. The tank crew have lost one of their men so are forced to take on a young, new recruit, played by Logan Lerman, as a replacement, despite the fact he has never been in a tank before.
Fury’s tank crew are plainly not heroes, not in the conventional sense anyhow. Shattered by what they have witnessed, the crew are merely trying to follow their orders and survive till the next day. They are a raw group of individuals, filled with bitterness and devoid of hope. Yet what comes across most strongly is the camaraderie between them. There is a strong sense that these men have lived together for years and that, beneath all the bluster, they do genuinely care about one another. It is this evident bond which is the film’s emotional core.
Ayer’s visual eye is impressive, managing to create a real sense of the claustrophobia that comes with being in a tank crew. There is no sugar-coating here. Violence is quick and it is brutal; one notable moment when a man is burning alive is particularly harrowing. For the most part Ayer manages to find a strong balance between anti-war and entertainment. The battle scenes are well shot, often tense but never thrilling. One small nit-pick is the use of CGI to portray the tracer fire of the guns. While the fact that tanks used tracer fire is factual, the CGI is quite poorly done which leaves the battle scenes looking less WWII and more low-budget Star Wars knock-off.
All this verisimilitude is for nothing in the end, as the film’s climax becomes preoccupied with Hollywood heroics. This is not damning criticism; the film is still emotionally affecting, but it is slightly disappointing that Ayer couldn’t maintain the bleak tone that he had started. A similar thing happens in Fury’s cinematic cousin Saving Private Ryan where the horror of the Omaha Beach sequence slowly devolves into traditional Spielbergian schmaltz (again, not necessarily an awful film-destroying thing).
The film’s structure is essentially episodic, with Lerman’s character’s slow transformation from a boy into a solider serving as the spine of the narrative. This episodic structure has been criticized but what that structure conveys is the monotony and seemingly never-ending bloodshed that characterizes war. One particular ‘episode’ however, a detour in a German women’s house, goes on for far too long and breaks the flow of the narrative. It is reminiscent of the plantation scene in Apocalypse Now Redux, great for context and building character but it jars spectacularly with the rest of the film.
The main performances are stellar. Brad Pitt isn’t exactly on full steam here but Brad Pitt coasting is far more engaging than most other actors going full throttle. It is Lerman however, who impresses the most. His reaction to the horrors that surround him are gut-wrenching. His character’s fear and pain as he is dragged reluctantly through hell are always believable and by far the most compelling part of the film. The other big name, Shia Labouef, fares less well. He’s saddled with a fairly two-dimensional bible-spouter and he struggles to do much with it. It’s not a bad performance but his straining to find some little quirk to make his character interesting gradually becomes embarrassing.
In fact, the main problem with the film is the thinness of its characters. They’re all tried and tested clichés: the gruff battle hardened leader with a heart of gold, the innocent rookie, the religious soldier, the ignorant hick and the token minority. Beyond their superficial paint by numbers character traits there really isn’t much else to latch on to, for the actors or the audience. They are ciphers, constructed solely for the purpose of being witnesses to the horror that surrounds them. While the violence seems real, the characters do not and this lessens the impact of the former.
Ayer has attempted to crack the ultimate question surrounding war movies and like so many directors before him, he hasn’t fully succeeded. But what he has done is create a film featuring some amazing craftsmanship and a lot of emotional heft. It may be cliché and somewhat shallow at times but it still manages to get you in the heart and in the stomach and that is to be commended.