Saturday, February 21, 2015

Cap'n Howdy's Best of 2014: Fury

 People seem to be wary of Fury, and I can understand why. I'm not sure that my reason for you to be wary about it is the same as yours - no one has really articulate the reason they seem surprised that I liked it - but of the movies mentioned in this recap that are "difficult to watch," there may be none more so than David Ayer (End of Watch)'s latest. Someone once described it to me as "the beginning of Saving Private Ryan for two hours," which is pretty accurate. Strip all of the Spielbergian sentimentality away from Saving Private Ryan, increase the tension and violence, and what you're left with is a lot like Fury. In fact, you can strip away all sentimentality, replace it with misanthropy that runs rampant, and throw in the "new guy" in the midst, then slowly break down anything that resembles a human being before the violent conclusion. That, in fact, is Fury.

 The "new guy" in question is Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a typing clerk who is eight weeks into his military experience. Despite his protestation, Ellison was shipped off to Germany in the waning months of World War II, and now he's going to replace the right gunner in the crew of Fury. The tank's crew were the only survivors of a battle with Nazis - the aftermath we see in the film's opening moments - and Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) is in no mood for someone with no experience to join his crew. Ellison's going to have to earn his spot, and that starts with literally cleaning the remains of his predecessor out of the seat he died in. Collier is at least willing to make the best of a very bad situation, but the rest of his crew - Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), Grady "Coon Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LeBouf) - don't want him at all. He's a weak link, and they've survived together by being strong, hardened by combat.

 From the outset, Fury is less a "men on a mission" film, and more about the deliberate attempt to "break" Ellison of being wet behind the ears. Collier, who is in addition to his skills as a tank commander, also speaks German, forces Ellison to shoot an unarmed Nazi in the back. Otherwise, Norman is useless to him. And this, we find, is Collier's way of being helpful: he can't afford for the new guy to have a moment of doubt, not when life and death come at a moment's notice. As they travel through the German countryside, clearing out towns, the team's continued abuse deteriorates Ellison's psyche even further. Moments that seem to offer a brief respite are often uncomfortable at best. Take, for example, the closest thing Fury has to a "sweet" moment.

 After clearing out the Nazis hiding in a small town - one marked on the outside by the bodies of people who refused to fight for Hitler - Collier takes Ellison inside an apartment, where they find two women (Anamaria Rinca and Alicia von Rittberg) hiding. Collier brings in some rations, and asks the older of the two to cook while he cleans himself. Things are already at a high level of discomfort when he tells Ellison to sleep with the younger one, or he will, and Norman reluctantly obliges. His rationale, as he explains in German, is that "they are young." Norman's moment of respite is interrupted when Garcia, Travis, and Swan march into the apartment, drunk and riotous from looting. They take umbrage to the fact they weren't invited to breakfast, and proceed to make Collier's imposition even uglier by showing no restraint in their behavior. What did the kid do to deserve this?

 The logical progression of this scene ends violently, but perhaps no in the way you might expect. Ayer is careful to maintain some level of dignity for the crew of Fury, but that doesn't mean that the horrors of war won't take their toll. This is a film where no one gets a break, where stoicism is the only course of action, and there's no time to grieve. Even as the more brutish of the crew (Gordo and Coon Ass, in particular) become more human to Ellison, it's not out of human decency, but a grudging respect for his transformation from rookie to "man willing to mow down Nazis." These men don't need a good man: they need a man who can kill anybody without hesitation.

 Where Fury excels is in its combat scenes, which have an intensity unlike many war films of the past decade or so. Put aside any notions of tanks as slow, lumbering hunks of metal. The showdown between a Nazi Tiger tank and Fury is a white-knuckle affair. The Tiger destroys the other tanks handily, leaving only Wardaddy and his men to stop it, and they do, by the skin of their teeth. It's a victory that feels earned, not one of convenience, and their reaction is less of celebration than of relief. It's the highlight of a film with many such encounters, including a protracted finale involving an hundreds of SS specialists attempting to destroy the crippled tank.

 Ayer does his level best to keep the protagonists from being monsters, despite the fact that it's very, very difficult to find anything nice to say about them. Often, Fury feels like a refutation of the "Greatest Generation," and while the Nazis aren't painted in a positive light, it's really hard to make a case that any of the main characters is much better. Even Lerman as Ellison eventually breaks, and becomes what Collier needs, earning the nickname "Machine." He fights back against their harsh methods, but ultimately, it's an exercise in futility. This is what being on the winning side of a war looks like, according to Ayer. This is not to say that any of the cast aren't pitch perfect in their roles. There's a sense of camaraderie and loyalty among the tank crew, particularly in the way they bicker. Bernthal and Peña have the most thankless roles, as the least likable characters in this, or really any war film I can think of. Lerman is playing, in a sense, the antithesis of his character in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pitt, I thought, was very good indeed as a man trying very hard to keep it together for his men. Against his wishes, he has to crush someone in order to keep him alive, and in small moments it comes through. It's not the "tic" heavy performance some complain Pitt is prone to, but one that's largely internalized.

 If you want to accuse Fury of anything, it's that Ayer is too willing to "rub your nose" in the horrors of war, of the degradation of the human spirit. There's nothing that comes even close to a respite from people behaving savagely to each other, and if Ayer worries that there's a chance of it, it's time to wipe that out with sudden finality. Seriously, this is the kind of movie that wants you to be very certain that "War Is Hell." It's going to spit in the face of how World War II has been presented for the last 60 years, and that might make people very angry. Know that going in. If that's cool with you, you're in for a tense ride, one that proves that "tank combat" on screen isn't an oxymoron.

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