Saturday 15 November 2014

Movie Review: Fury (2014)

The most impressive World War Two film since Saving Private Ryan, Fury borrows heavily from Spielberg's classic but also defines its own overwhelming intensity. Director and writer David Ayer delivers a stunningly gritty look at men in cramped surroundings fighting through a prolonged and ugly war that simply refuses to end quietly.

It's April, 1945, World War Two in Europe is in its final days and the Allies are pushing deep into Germany. Hitler has ordered every man, woman and child to defend the fatherland. The end result is not in doubt, and yet the fighting grinds on. On the front lines veteran Staff Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) commands a US Army Sherman tank nicknamed Fury, with an experienced and tight crew consisting of gunner Swan (Shia LaBeouf), loader Travis (Jon Bernthal), and driver Garcia (Michael Peña). The fifth crew member and assistant driver has just been killed, his guts splattered all over the tank. In the prevailing chaos army typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is assigned to Fury as the replacement crew member.

Norman has never seen the inside of a tank before, and never killed anyone, and he is initially a poor fit within Fury's battle hardened crew. With vicious fighting continuing against ever more desperate German defenders, Wardaddy takes it upon himself to teach Norman the ways of war, forcing him to kill and badgering him into shape. When Fury participates in seizing a German town, Norman starts to understand the merciless brutality required of him. Wardaddy rewards him by arranging private time in the company of an attractive local German woman (Alicia von Rittberg), but this causes resentment among the other crew members. Still ahead for Fury is a bruising encounter with an imposing Tiger tank, and an attempt to seize and hold a strategic crossroads.

The parallels with Saving Private Ryan are obvious: a tight-knit fighting unit with every member sure of his task, a respected veteran leading the group, the new, untrained guy who struggles to integrate, and the final mission within the confused front lines against overwhelming numbers, resulting in heroism and sacrifice. Ayer gives Wardaddy a sharper edge as a commander who has long since adopted a kill-on-sight philosophy, unafraid to terminate captured prisoners, particularly hated members of the Waffen-SS. And Fury benefits from the focus on a single tank and its claustrophobic interior, a world which offers the promise of a protective shell and the threat of an instant casket.

The episodes of battle are fierce, loud and gory. There is a charge against defensive fortifications to rescue stranded infantry troops, the assault on the small town, a furious tactical battle against the imposing Tiger, and then the defence of the crossroads. Ayer delivers these scenes with unblinking violence, death greeting men, tanks and civilians in loud, frequent and unforgiving bursts, who lives and who dies determined by courage, fortitude and the incessant twists of fate.

And as Fury trundles across the terrain between battles, there are shots of corpses flattened into the mud, splattered faces of explosion victims, and dead civilian victims of the SS hanging from posts, as warning to those who refuse to partake in the defence of their country in the war's final convulsion. Rarely has the hellish aspect of war been so nonchalantly conveyed through the hardened eyes of the soldiers who make it so.

Fury offers plenty of opportunities to build the crew into real people. Ayer finds the men inside the tank hardened into soldiers resigned to a reality of violence, hoping for but not anticipating an ending, and evolved into a working family that now enjoys the job of war. There are anxieties in the buildups, adrenaline pumping thrills when the shooting starts, and euphoria when the battle ends and lives are intact. Swan emerges as Wardaddy's closest friend and advisor, but still a subordinate, while Norman is the young innocent who must adapt or die before his ineptitude costs too many more lives.

The pivotal character scene takes place in the apartment of the German woman Irma and her niece Emma, Wardaddy finding a place of relative refuge to clean-up, eat and maybe offer Norman a respite from the shock of battle. The scene has an unusual tautness. The Americans are not anymore liberators or rescuers; they are now invaders, taking over the territory and homes of their enemy, free to have their way with defenceless women. Wardaddy seems to be deciding on his next step in real time, measuring just how much victor justice to impose. Ayer patiently allows the drama to unfold, the conflict evolving from potential violence against women to the dangerous fracturing of trust among men who need to depend on each other to live.

Fury's final battle is as over the top as the crossroads are a surreal depiction of the intersection of hell and sacrifice. Nothing about the last stand should make sense, but in the context of a world gone insane with bloodlust, it the perfect ending to a war twitching towards an agonizing denouement, dragging as many victims as possible along with it.

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