In David Ayer’s Fury, Brad Pitt returns to World War II as “Wardaddy,” the commander of a tank name “Fury”—hey, that’s the name of the movie too!—and its crew (Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lehrman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal) battling its way across Nazi Germany in 1945.
Ryan: Did you know that war is terrible?
That seems to be the sole point of Fury, and it’s hammered home from start to finish. And when I say it’s the sole point, I really mean it—all the notions of heroism and resolve that have come to be familiar thanks to Saving Private Ryan and the like are stripped away. There’s no hat-tipping to the Greatest Generation here. Every character is either fundamentally broken or in the process of breaking.
Along with any higher ideals, Fury also does away with historical accuracy. There are no dates (beyond a reference to “April 1945” in the opening crawl), no real-world locations, no recognizable names or figures. Even Inglorious Basterds, the Looney Tunes of World War II films, had Paris and Goebbels and Winston Churchill. This lends the film a unique, otherworldly feel, less like Spielberg and more like the work of Sergio Leone, whose “Dollars Trilogy” was set during the Civil War but was filmed in Europe, with European extras.
Keeping the setting familiar in only the most general sense allows Fury to focus on its theme on a larger, broader scale. Its explorations of that theme yield mixed results. Ayer depicts the horrors of war viscerally, and that’s always going to be arresting when done well. However, they’re the same horrors we’ve already seen, presented here in manifestations that are often contrived. Fury is more successful during its lengthier action sequences (an instance in which “Fury” faces a larger, deadlier German tank is particularly thrilling). But the idea of war being a ruinous, poisonous influence on mankind isn’t new, and neither are Fury‘s ruminations on this point as Brad Pitt and company make their way across this Teutonic hell-scape.
Pitt, whose character plays like a more haunted version of Basterds‘ Aldo Raine, is perfectly fine, as are his co-stars (including Lehrman, who does a lot with a pretty standard character arc). But there’s only so much even the most talented actors can do with material that isn’t fresh. Which begs the question: Do we need movies like this anymore? Have we amassed an overabundance of this kind of material, or do new offerings like Fury still serve a purpose?
Rebecca: I’m really surprised by your take on this movie. But before I go into why, in the interest of full disclosure, l’ll make one thing clear: war films are not my forté. I tend to agree with those who say the genre often seems exploitative and too little invested in story, leaning on audiences’ fascination with violence instead of characters. This isn’t to imply I don’t appreciate some war films – both the ones you mentioned, Inglorious Basterds and Saving Private Ryan – are excellent, and wildly different, approaches. So, to answer your question about the “need” for this kind of material: yes and no. There’s always room for a great filmmaker with a fresh point of view to inject life into any stale genre.
With that stated, what surprises me is that in Fury you praise the action sequences the most. These scenes, by the way, are basically constructed like so: barely moving vehicles shoot at each other and slowly turn around in empty fields to position themselves to better shoot one another. Men scream a lot. Sometimes a tank blows up. It’s kind of like that moment in Austin Powers when Austin is driving a construction vehicle moving a solid two miles an hour, and one clueless worker stands in front in terror for far too long until he’s smooshed flat. The moral of this gag? Unless the direction is riveting (and the players are clearly delineated), slow-moving vehicles don’t equal thrills.
The best parts of Fury come in quieter moments, when scenes focus on contrasting views of war and the surrealism of that time and place, and how it spiritually poisoned the men involved. Sure – we’ve all seen this done better in better movies – but at least there’s some thread of character to latch onto amid limbs exploding off bodies and faces literally dripping onto the floor.
I was far more on the edge of my seat during a lengthy scene in which Pitt and Lehrmen’s characters encounter two German women in an overtaken German town. Pitt is excellent in this sequence, playing with expectations, refusing to be the vile rapist the women fear he might be, while also refusing to be a pillar of nobility. The scene only gets better, intensifying when the rest of the men arrive, drunk and wild (and possibly a little rapey), with the drama hinging on how far Pitt’s strained sergeant will let his frenzied men go.
On the other hand, where Fury loses me most is in its lack of purpose, as a story and in its characters. As you’ve pointed out, at first this seems intentional, as if the filmmakers wanted to make a movie that refuses to glorify World War II, that refuses to frame men dying in a context of American exceptionalism. But as the movie heads toward its conclusion (which is oddly staged half during the day and half at night), their sudden shift to nobility is downright forced, if not manipulative. When the men decide to fight to the death with their commander, it seems more like an act of co-dependence than meaningful sacrifice.
Were you moved by the end of Fury? And do you agree that Shia LeBoeuf’s mustache is likely the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Oscars?
Ryan: It should be! That’s a triple-A mustache he’s sporting.
Sadly, thanks to the arcane and antiquated rules governing the nomination process, mustaches are not yet eligible. But with time and hard work – along with no small amount of bribery and blackmail directed towards the Screen Actors Guild as well as the acting branch of the Academy – I think we’ll get there.
I didn’t find the ending particularly moving. For one, it’s in all of the advertising for the film. If you saw almost any commercial for Fury leading up to its release, you knew that everyone was going to stay in the tank. If you’ve seen any World War II movie ever, you could figure out that the scene in question was going to occur during the climax.
Exterior factors notwithstanding, it’s not a very stirring turn of events because the film so diligently eschews the nobility of human sacrifice in wartime on a conceptual level, as we’ve both touched upon. “Wardaddy” stays in the tank because, as he himself states resignedly, it’s his “home.” His comrades appear to follow suit because they’ve followed his orders for so long that they no longer trust any course of action besides the one he prescribes. There’s nothing particularly heroic about it; though, in all fairness, I don’t think there’s supposed to be.
I want to add that even though you and I disagree on what we liked about Fury, we both did ultimately like it. It might look like I didn’t based on what I’ve said in this review, but it’s a generally engaging (and occasionally arresting) piece of filmmaking. That it doesn’t fully realize its ambitions doesn’t mean it’s altogether lacking in value.