Director / Screenplay: David Ayer / Editing: Jay Cassidy, Dody Dorn / DP: Roman Vasynov / Music: Steven Price
Cast: Brad Pitt / Shia LaBeouf / Logan Lerman / Michael Peña / Jon Bernthal / Jim Parrack / Jason Isaacs / Anamaria Marinca / Alicia von Rittberg / Scott Eastwood / Brad William Henke
The Fire and the Fury…
It is Germany. April, 1945. The end of hostilities in Europe are little more than a month away. But we’re not in Berlin yet. As American forces advance, resistance becomes ever more desperate. Fanatical. World War Two might be nearing its end but, even now, warfare still has the power to numb. Writer-Director David Ayer delivers a hoary tale, following the crew of a Sherman tank christened ‘Fury’, as they lumber ever-closer to the end of it all.
Prior to this, Ayer wrote screenplays dealing with aspects of crime in LA, including Training Day and the original Fast and Furious (2001, both). He moved into directing with the Christian Bale vehicle Harsh Times (2005) but made his mark with End of Watch (2012), in which a pair of cops find themselves in deep water.
Movies about men, in tough circumstances, then; under pressure and needing to perform.
Couple that sensibility with his own experience as a young man, serving as a submariner and his own family’s experience of WW2 and, in hindsight, it almost seems inevitable that Ayer would both write & direct a war movie some day; as though life would always lead him there. But one set in WW2? I’m sure few saw that coming…
It’s said by critics more qualified to speak on the topic than I, that war films – along with Sci-Fi – are a reflection of the eras in which they’re made. From the gung-ho jingoism of films from the 1940s, we move through war in Korea & Cold-War paranoia, to a loss of nerve – of identity – with the 1970s and the morass of Vietnam. Film-makers then absorbed the psychodrama of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), blending that with a new sensibility and new locations: the Middle East of Three Kings (1999) or the Horn of Africa for Black Hawk Down (2001) and all points in-between. Warfare was now asymmetrical; regular armies against irregulars.
The Noughties brought 9/11 and the nebulous ‘War on Terror’, the end of which seems further away than ever. Afghanistan. Iraq, for a second time. The rules of engagement have changed, along with what we want from our war movies. Today’s audience craves heroes to identify with; paragons untainted by doubt. ‘Modern warfare’ has changed so radically from what we grew up believing it to be, that we now crave war movies, in which everyone knows who the bad guys are…
In other words, World War Two is now seen by film-makers as ‘the Good Old Days’!
Fury begins with a startling image, as a German officer rides a white horse through the smoke, nay, the fog of war. I’m moved to say that we ‘behold a pale horse. An ashen horse and he who sat upon it had the name Death.’ It’s not often I quote Revelations in a film review – in fact, I think it’s a first – but the image is so obvious, I can’t believe Ayer had anything else on his mind when composing this shot.
This officer, wearing the ‘Death’s Head’ insignia of the SS, rides through a still-smouldering jumble of wrecked tanks & vehicles when hitherto-unseen Brad Pitt, launches himself from one of the smoking hulks and kills him: it seems there’s still one tank amongst the litter of war, with life still aboard…
After surveying the drab scene, we follow Pitt back-inside Fury’s belly. It’s clear this is to be no pastiche of a war movie, following in the tracks of something like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) or Kelly’s Heroes (1970). The palette is desaturated to the point of appearing monochromatic. Dialogue between the crew is terse, yet there’s a rhythm about it; a fluidity that’s hard to fake. Ayer put the actors through a tough ‘boot-camp’, to familiarise themselves with ‘their’ (real) tank prior to the shoot and it shows.
Once they get Fury moving again, they reach their base with no further incident. The first job? The removal of a dead comrade and the arrival of his replacement, who meets Fury’s skeptical commander. Brad Pitt, is War-Daddy. The grizzled Sergeant, who’s kept them together through thick and thin. This loss, is their first since coming together ‘back in North Africa’ (some two years earlier, by my reckoning). I think Pitt’s doing well here, showing little of the swagger he’d given Tarantino. In Pitt’s hands, ‘Daddy is the (appropriately named) benign patriarch at the head of Fury’s family. He’s the glue that holds them together, but those bonds are about to be tested by Logan Lerman as new-boy Norman. A typing clerk and veteran of just eight weeks service, Lerman will put in a full shift in this picture, going from wide-eyed kid to hollow-eyed combat soldier in just a few days.
Ayer’s clearly taking inspiration from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998); a revered film that also used a young clerk as the audience’s eyes & ears, but I’m not calling Ayer out on this. On the contrary: it’s a tested way of drip-feeding necessary information to a general audience: in this case, ‘How does a battle tank function?’
Norman’s first job? Meet the remaining crew. Fury’s driver is Gordo, played by Michael Peña who might – and I’m happy to be corrected here – be the first Latino-American in a WW2 action movie; I certainly can’t think of another and he’s great here. Laconic. Self-possessed. The gunner is Bible – a scripture-quoting turn from Shia LaBeouf that might just be some of his best work on-screen; it certainly helps flush-away the stain of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008). Last-but-not-least, is the mechanic & loader Coon-Ass; an Arkansas native given life by Jon Bernthal. Barely house-trained, Coon-Ass is written (and played) to act as counter-point to War-Daddy’s stoicism; where ‘Daddy is restrained, Coon-Ass is off the chain.
For all I know, Ayer might’ve built an interior set allowing ease-of-access for his cameras, lights & mics, but it looks & sounds authentic in-there and combines to convey a feeling of presence; you’re there with Norman, watching him scrape gore off the interior. When he scrambles outside to barf, we’ve already spent enough time in there with him, to have a sense of his discomfort. Yes, it’s a movie. A work of illusion, but the producers have done enough to convince me.
Ayer is an intelligent writer & film-maker. His time as a submariner left him marinated in the ways & habits of men confined in close-proximity with each other for hours on-end. There would’ve been a time, when he was the new-guy and seen as an unknown quantity by crew-mates; just as Norman is, here. The formula Ayer adopted, might be echoing films of the past, but there’s a reason why it works and why it still rings-true. In-theory, this bunch of archetypal characters suggest live-wires worth-watching; in theory…
After losing the lead tank in their rag-tag column to an ambush, ‘Daddy berates Norman for not having opened-fire quicker. The atmosphere aboard Fury is therefore tense, when they rendezvous with the ever-reliable Jason Isaacs as Capt. Waggoner. He needs what remains of Fury’s squadron, to eradicate a pocket of German resistance on the outskirts of a small town, then enter its heart with his men in-support. The action is brief but successful and they proceed with little loss, but ‘Daddy’s still unconvinced by Norman’s suitability or his ‘right’ to even be a member of Fury’s crew:
War-Daddy: I had the best battle gunner in the entire Ninth Army in that seat. Now I got you. I promised my crew a long time ago, I‘d keep ‘em alive. You’re getting in the way of that.’
Norman: ‘I’m sorry. I trained to type sixty-words-a-minute. I’m not trained to machine-gun dead bodies. I’m trying my very best.’
The sequence ends with ‘Daddy, out of concern & frustration, forcing a pistol into Norman’s hands and have him shoot a prisoner in the back. To ‘Daddy, it’s all very simple: Norman’s a liability if he can’t fight alongside them; irrespective of his training or the Army’s decision to put him there. The crew that fights together – for each other – is the crew that makes it to Berlin. Yet that same crew – that biological ‘machine’ – is only as strong as its weakest link: Norman. War-Daddy’s hard on him, because he has to be and I think Ayer – and the actors – do a credible job of conveying that imperative. Ayer reinforces that notion when, after entering the town, ‘Daddy shows Norman the bodies of local Nazi officials:
War-Daddy: ‘They got drunk as Lords and shot themselves at sun-up.’
Norman: ‘Why are you showing me this?’
War-Daddy: ‘Ideals are peaceful. History’s violent…’
Talk of weakest links, brings me to a lengthy sequence in which ‘Daddy spots a woman looking down at the town-square from the window of a flat. He takes Norman up there with him and discovers the woman Irma has company: a young cousin, Emma, played by Anamaria Marinca & Alicia von Rittberg, respectively. Initial awkwardness – and any implied threat – is soon overcome, once the women see them, not as conquering enemy soldiers, but men. Tired men. Bearing eggs & bacon. Lucky Strikes. Any implied desire, is for some hot water with which to shave. That said, ‘Daddy rounds-out Norman’s education by encouraging him to sleep with Emma, who’s as terrified as she is thrilled: I think. And looking-on, is Irma; watching as ‘Daddy washes. When the kids emerge from the bedroom, she’s the one smoking the post-coital cigarette…
I get it. It’s a grace note within the film, offering a change of scene and palette. An opportunity for these characters to round-out a little and, by itself, I think Ayer just about gets away with it. That is, until he has the rest of Fury’s now-drunken crew barge-in, at the point where Irma’s serving-up the food. Chief instigator of unrest is – surprise, surprise – Coon-Ass, who taints both food and atmosphere, whether in the room or between the crew themselves. Ayer allows this to unfold, but I can’t help thinking it’s an opportunity missed; one in which resolution might’ve been achieved by having ‘Daddy make a declarative statement along the lines of ‘One day soon the war will end and we’ll have to return to ‘this’; normality.’
What he actually does, is assert his desire to finish his meal and offers no apology for not having invited the others up in the first place; as if he knew – perhaps from past experiences – how such a scenario might’ve played-out. It’s an important shift, because he sees something of himself in Norman. A remembrance of himself as a young man, perhaps? That’s why he makes no apology: and why should he? He’s as much a killer of these people as the rest of them. But he’s retained his humanity, too.
But there’s one final sting in the tail: a rain of shellfire strikes the town and a stray round hits Irma’s flat, snuffing-out both her and Emma in the blink of an eye. If there’s a moment in the film that speaks to the futility of war and the cruel, arbitrary nature of Fate, then it’s this. No wonder that ‘Daddy enjoyed the quietude while it lasted.
War-Daddy: ‘It will end. Soon. But before it does, a lot more people got to die…’
Amen to that.
Act Three is all about the reckoning. About The Wheel of Fate and how it relates to ‘Daddy’s plain-speaking. Things happen quickly. Events overwhelm the column. Then Fury itself. Slowly, as if destiny is being meted-out through a thousand cuts…
There has to be a witness, of course. Someone with the capacity – and distance – to tell the tale and write the legend for future days-to-come. The final crane shot, looking down at Fury as the camera corkscrews to the heavens, tells its own story: the legacy of the night before, in the morning after.
Along the way, Ayer has given us an often-visceral, unsentimental and unflinching look at ‘Violent History’. He’s taken advantage of a selection of genuine Shermans, loaned by the Bovington Tank Museum down in Dorset, along with their German ‘Tiger 1’ tank: the last one still running. As a result, the production is largely without-fault, benefitting from obsessive attention-to-detail.
Its episodic script barrels along at a comfortable pace and kudos to Editors Cassidy & Dorn for keeping things so tight. Where I take issue with the film, is in the aforementioned handling of the sequence with the two women after the crew arrive and the shallowness of the characters as-written; let’s now explore that.
In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg understood the fundamental need to balance Tom Hanks’ character as a leader of men with his other side: that of a ‘warrior-poet’ with all shades in-between. So while we see him in-action, we’re also privy to his suffering, whether from nervy hand-shakes, or writing to the mothers of those killed in his charge. He dreams of life back home and the wife he left behind. His men are similarly articulate, expressing memories of key moments in their lives ‘from before’; some often funny & poignant. In this way, their witness – another seconded-clerk – joins a squad of bright, clear-eyed guys in whose company we feel comfortable being around. Make no mistake: as-written, and as directed by Spielberg, these men are every bit as dangerous as those in Fury.
Yet there’s a crucial deficit in Fury that Ayer’s script never remedies: the shallowness of its characters and the ensuing absence of levity. It’s as if Ayer’s so focussed on playing it straight, he’s forgotten that real people laugh.
The result? ‘Ryan offers a rounded-bevy of central characters, whereas Fury offers mono-tonal, grunting drunks with a depressive acceptance of war as a perpetual state-of-mind. Don’t imagine I’m putting ‘Ryan on a pedestal here; the film has its own problems, but I just don’t think its script is chief among them.
Pitt is every inch the movie star in Fury. Hanks, too, was – and remains – a permanent fixture in the modern cinema, but Spielberg resisted the temptation to photograph him in too-many lingering, noble close-ups, yet Ayer can’t help himself. Too often, he has DP Vasyanov’s lens roam across his star’s chiselled visage, as if to remind that general audience just why they bought their tickets. While many came for the vicarious thrills, others turned-up for its star and Ayer plays too-easily to them. Had he focussed on the job-at-hand, any objectification of Pitt would’ve been toned-down and his character as-written, might’ve breathed a little easier.
In conclusion? Fury is a straightforward war movie; episodic in nature and stripped of the usual Hollywood bombast. It’s aiming to do for the ‘Tankers’, what ‘Ryan did for the D-Day vets, or Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers did for the U.S. Marines out in the Pacific. This is Hollywood playing-it-straight and, in those terms, it largely succeeds.
However, despite looking & sounding top-drawer, Ayer’s script has all the depth of a shower-stall. Despite fine individual performances, characters are paper-thin and little better than hackneyed stereotypes. Religious zealot? Check. Backwoodsman, who’ll either revert to living as a wild-man or end-up a serial killer? Check…
It’s a shame, because Fury’s heart is in the right place. It’s just that Ayer’s script needed a defibrillator and surgery before production began, if it were ever to match its peers. Instead, it wheezes and stumbles forward; too weak to put up a fight against anything but the shadows cast by better films.
And remember. Short bursts. That way, you harvest more meat-per-bullet.