Fury is the anti-Saving-Private-Ryan, and I mean that as a good thing. Which is not say I think Saving Private Ryan is a bad movie. But in retrospect, the movie gains most of its power from the brutal and crushingly chaotic Normandy beach landing at the beginning. The terrifying stuttery camerawork that Spielberg perfected with that film, so compelling at the beginning, feels like artistic cover for the descent into the standard Hollywood cinematic machinery by the end. As screenwriter William Goldman once (roughly) quipped, “Saving Private Ryan starts as a movie about how war is hell, and ends as a movie about how war can be a neat learning experience for little Matt Damon.”
Fury is sort of what you’d get if you took the part that’s still about how war is hell, and stretched it out to a full-length running time.
Like its predecessor, Fury begins with an untested private, named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who’s assigned to a Sherman tank crew after they lose one of their men. Up until now Ellison has been a typist for the military, and has never seen combat. The first job given him by the crew’s commander, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, (Brad Pitt) is to clean the Sherman’s interior – which includes picking up stray bits of his predecessor’s ruined face.
Collier himself is a dark mirror-image of Tom Hanks’ platoon commander in Saving Private Ryan. Both characters inspire a mix of reverence and befuddlement in their men. But Hanks’ character remained, well, Hanks-esque; a paragon of quasi-modern masculine decency. Collier, on the other hand, is a remorseless and tireless avatar of martial purpose. After a blistering initial battle in which Ellison loses his nerve and fails to fire on the enemy when needed, Collier addresses the problem by literally grabbing hold of Ellison and bodily forcing him to execute a captured German soldier at near point-blank range.
Though again, as with Tom Hank’s character, we catch glimpses of Collier alone and apart from the crew. Then the Wardaddy facade crumbles, revealing a man running desperately to stay ahead of his own despair and emptiness.
The rest of the crew includes Bible (Shia LaBeouf), an evangelical Christian who offers what support to Ellison he can. Gordo (Michael Peña) is the other gunner, who lays into Ellison whenever he fails to hold up his end of the tank’s logistical workings. Then there’s Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal),whose spirit has been so ruined by the war he cannot stand any reminders of life outside it, making him the first to wreck the vibe whenever any of his comrades attempt to recreate or remember civilized life. Needless to say, he does not react well to a fresh crew member whose moral compass has not yet been ground into the mud by the tank treads and marching boots, and who still sees the war and the crew’s actions in it through the eyes of a civilian.
With End of Watch and Harsh Times, two of his previous efforts as writer-drector, David Ayer has made something of a niche for himself crafting films about men trying (and usually failing) to rise above the dysfunctional and violent societies in which they find themselves. Both those movies dealt with south-central Los Angeles, so Fury represents a big stretch for Ayer; lifting that approach and transplanting it to the final, brutal months of the Allies’ drive into Germany.
At two hours and fourteen minutes, the film is substantive but doesn’t overstay its welcome. The characters are broadly drawn but also effectively inhabited by the actors, and Ayer’s script delivers its story and its dialogue in a punchy and minimalist style. His camera paints the film in grim but sharply-realized shades of grey and brown, and uses a classical shooting approach to observe the horrors in brief and methodical terms. Ayer’s editing and shot choices ably capture the capricious chaos of who lives and dies, and modern movie effects are brought bear to communicate the visceral force of the fights, the ferocity of the tracer fire and the impact of the shells.
That said, Fury’s big flaw is structural. The story is built around two extremely long sequences, then there are three other short tank battles thrown in and some expository scenes to stitch everything together. The feel is episodic, with some serious start-and-stop pacing issues. The opening twenty minutes are so disjointed they almost come off as an experimental film, but after that we get to know the characters and the film finds its footing.
Those two extended sequences are both virtuoso work – mini-films within a film – and serve as counterpoints to one another. The first is a strange scene after a town is taken, and Collier and Ellison stumble upon two German women hold up in an apartment. A disturbing and poignant attempt at domesticity ensues, as the four human beings try to understand one another across the gap of language and blasted society – and Collier and Ellison try to bring out their own better selves and protect the women from the worst impulses of their fellow soldiers. The second sequence is the brutal battle that closes out the film’s last act, sparked by a choice the crew makes that will almost certainly get them all killed. There’s a tactical military logic to their decision, but also no one could possibly blame them for choosing differently. By that point Fury has also laid out the nature of its characters and the despairing logic of war, so that the decision is understandable in human terms. The underlying murderous, suicidal, and redemptive impulses all bleed into a kind of coherent whole.
This is an extremely violent and remarkably pitiless cinematic meditation on war. But not a nihilistic one. As with his other films, Ayer finds humanity and even humor not in happy endings, but in the fleeting moments of decency his characters repeatedly and stubbornly insist on snatching from the chaos around them. At its climactic moment, after the Bible verses have been quoted, Fury carries that human decency to its unexpected yet obvious final conclusion. The result is a glimpse of grace far too effervescent to compare to Saving Private Ryan’s sledgehammer attempt at redemptive meaning. But it offers the quiet possibility that, somewhere far off down the line, all the carnage and the death will not be the final word.