In 1998, Steven Spielberg set the standard for war movies with Saving Private Ryan. He took an archetypical narrative and filmed it Gonzo, putting the camera in the middle of the blood, guts, and heroism. There have been many imitators, resulting in successes like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and others not exclusive to the genre. A true follow-up, embodying the personal experiences of soldiers in WWII, has not been achieved. However, Director David Ayer’s Fury did something else entirely.
Ayer takes a note from Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron and coats every part of the film in dirt and grime. In the same fashion, the characters are war-weary tankers that have killed and destroyed for three straight years across two continents. Their nihilism takes the anti-war themes of Private Ryan into snuff film territory; they are aware of what they have done, they know they are monsters, and do not care. The war has turned their patriotism into shell-shocked barbarism. All that holds them together is camaraderie and their rational superior “Wardaddy” Collier, played by Brad Pitt.
The focus of the film is the tank crew. Under Wardaddy is Bible, a pious turret gunner played by Shia Labeouf; Gordo, an alcoholic yet clear-minded driver played by Michael Pena; and Coon-Ass a loudmouth Redneck not afraid to speak his mind played by Jon Bernthal. After losing his bow gunner, Wardaddy is sent Private Norman Ellison as a replacement, played by Logan Lerman. Ellison is an ordinary Army clerk before an error in the system put him in the bowels of Fury. Throughout the film he must set aside his idealism and moral virtue if he wants to survive.
The film was shot in the guts of a Sherman tank where the characters have lived since the start of the war. We see the routine of loading massive rounds into the turret, the limited perspectives of the gunner and driver, and the personal items of each soldier. The best part of the experience are the sounds; from the thumps of Nazi boots climbing outside, the prang of spent shells hitting the steel floor, to the echoing gong of opposing rounds bursting against the hull.
The film’s strengths are in its theme and how the actors reflect it in their performances. War is a loud, nasty business and each character is affected in different ways. What they share is sorrow, irreversibly changed with no hope of returning to who they once were. The best example of this happens at the Midpoint where the war goes quiet and the tankers struggle to find peace without debauchery. It was a great moment of acting from Shia Labeouf where he says virtually nothing, but you can see on his face what he is feeling as Michael Pena recalls a story about horses on D-Day.
The few problems the film has are superficial. We never really hear the character’s names; I had to look them up. Performances make the characters, but it would help to know them by name. The editing was spotty in some places where a scene cuts too early, but it is not enough to ignore the film outright.
Fury is well worth its length as a new yet old take on the genre. The realistic way it handles effects in its battle scenes is reason alone to see it.