Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Fury (2014) – Review

Review: Fury is a graphic, gritty WWII tank action/drama that cuts through the typical nostalgia of the era and goes straight for the moral ambiguity of what actual soldiers faced.

The film is about the five-man crew of the Sherman tank ‘Fury’ commanded by a battle-hardened sergeant named Wardaddy. April 1945, nearing the end of the war, the tank is assigned desperate mission to protect the advancing Allies’ supply lines in Germany. Fury along with three other Sherman tanks set off to face an unknown number of troops marching towards the Allies’ position. For all they know they are out-numbered and out-gunned.

World War II era films are generally black and white morally. Adolf Hitler is a symbol of supreme evil to this day, which makes the forces that oppose him the forces of good, if not by default. Thus, WWII is regarded now with such a high level of heroic nostalgia that many often forget about what it was like for the actual soldiers. Simply portraying the Allies as the good guys and the Axis (Germany, Japan and their allies) forces as the bad guys is too easy. Yet, that is how the war is often portrayed, even in very good narratives like Band of Brothers (probably the best made war film/series, yet it too has a strong nostalgia to it). Films of the 1940s and 1950s, too, featured a high level of patriotism, heroism and nostalgia for the heroes and heroics displayed by the Allied fighting forces – because they needed to (the 1940s was a time of propaganda filmmaking and the 1950s needed to show that the sacrifice was well worth it).

The cynicism of modern war does not creep into film until filmmakers begin tackling the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now look directly at the darkness within man; however, that same cynicism has not bled over into WWII for American filmmakers (as it certainly has for German, as seen in Downfall or Stalingrad, among others). With Fury, writer-director David Ayer seems like he wants to remove the nostalgia and heroism that represents the era and present the soldiers in a much more gritty and realistic light, allowing some of that cynicism to sneak into this heralded era.

The film is incredibly violent and graphic. Ayer does not want to pull any punches visually, allowing the horrors of war to take a central place in his visual narrative. In fact, I would say that he even goes out of his way to detail just how visceral and grotesque war really is with his visuals and thematic elements. He wants his film to be intense and feel overwhelming.

Ayer wants his audience to see the soldiers as they really were; men forced to become animals in order to deal with the carnage that they must face and reap. Mentally, the average man must make himself less of a man in order to compartmentalize the horror – the soldiers who did come back were not the same (post-traumatic stress disorder was found in something like 99% of all G.I.s returning from WWII). Looking at the war from high above it is easy to see who was right and wrong, good and evil, but on the battlefield, man against man it becomes much grayer.

There is a sentiment among many men who have served that they themselves are not heroes, but they served with many heroes who never came home. It is hard to feel heroic when you have seen, suffered through, and done what is necessary in battle to survive. Often, and simply, it comes down to one man needing to kill another man before that man kills him – and, he must do this by any means necessary, which can lead to some very dark places. Especially given the fact that really these soldiers on opposing sides are not very different. They want the same things for their lives; but to survive, they must convince themselves that the soldiers that oppose them are evil – how else can they justify the killing?

Ayer’s ambitious with Fury is to more accurately display this hardship and darkness within fighting men, allied forces or axis forces. Fury is primarily focused on the five men that occupy the tank, never really giving much thought to other soldiers and especially not the enemy (because really, they do not matter; not to these men; their tank squad is their family; they will do anything to keep each other alive). Ayer’s characters are also much more ambiguous morally (as is his narrative in general) and presented as being much grittier and dirtier than most WWII dramas have shown their characters to be. These men are not likable in the classical sense, yet the audience is behind them because they are just average men who are asked to do more than any man should need to do. No man should be asked to kill another, yet that is the way of man.

The audience has an in to the dirty, grimy world that Ayer has created with Norman Ellison. He, like the audience, is new to the world Ayer sets in front of him. He is a good man with a set of morals. Yet, his morals have no place in battle, as he indirectly gets other soldiers killed because he is hesitant to fire upon enemy troops (because they are just kids). He soon realizes, as Ayer hopes the audience will, that to be an effective member of his squad he must lose his former self and develop a battle persona (he is dubbed ‘Machine’ by his mates), mentally allowing him to do what is necessary, compartmentalizing the horror.

Ayer has not completely lost sight of what makes war films great, however. At its core, Fury is a film about the brotherhood that forms among fighting men – something apparent in every film (non-fiction and fiction alike) – and the impossible thing that these ‘brothers’ are asked to undertake. Here, the tank squad is asked to stop the advancement of a few hundred German soldiers essentially alone. It is a suicide mission. Their will to take on the odds and fight their hardest makes them heroic (much in the same way we champion those who fought at the Alamo again the Mexican forces of General Santa Anna). Ayer plays this grand finale for action and emotion. It works very well, as the audience deeply invests in these men because Ayer has made is clear just what they are doing and what it means.

Fury is a much darker and grittier (and probably more realistic look, to some extent) than most past WWII dramas, but it is also a Hollywood film in many ways. Norman is completely incompetent when he first joins the crew of Fury. He is only trained as a typist. Yet, within a few days he becomes a more than adequate soldier. This feels a bit unrealistic, especially given the fact that often replacement soldiers were not as well trained and would usually be killed in droves because they just were not ready to fight. Norman is thrown into the fire, so to speak. It is not impossible to believe that his instincts took over and his will to survive carried him through. Fury is not based on a true story. The realism of the odds they face in the film conclude in certain death, and yet they give the Germans a heck of a fight. It feels a bit exaggerated (but that is often the case with film, as it needs to be bigger to engage the audience). The graphic and violent nature of the narrative and the darkness and moral ambiguity that the characters are presented with gives the film a somewhat uncomfortable tone in the sense that the film is very intense and serious. Some filmgoers broke into nervous laughter throughout as a coping mechanism, while others found themselves in tears.

While the film does play on a bit of a bigger stage than it probably would have given a more realistic approach to the plot details, it is ultimately a very effective drama and compelling action film (assuming you are not off-put by graphic violence and gore, as some are). The gritty, dirty and morally ambiguous character approach works quite well in establishing characters that feel much more real than the heralded heroes that we are often treated to in WWII films. In Fury, these are real men, flaws and all, put in impossible situations, asked to do impossible things.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: David Ayer is known for writing and directing very gritty L.A. police dramas, his best probably being End of Watch (he also wrote Training Day). Fury, however, sees him take a big step forward as a filmmaker. It is his best film visually and emotionally. It gets at the heart of what it was like in the dirt and muck for the average WWII grunt. It is also thrilling and engaging as an action film. I look forward to what he does next.

Composer Steven Price’s score is fantastic. He completely understands and embraces the darker tone that Ayer hopes to achieve with the film. The score is unnerving as it seems to get right at the fear within each man’s heart as he goes into battle. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov’s work is also wonderful. His visuals are entrenched with bleakness and faded color. There is nothing bright or happy in this narrative. Andrew Menzies’s production design is excellent as well, capturing the look and feel of the era very well. He too contributes to the bleakness and darkness of the look and tone. The film just feels very dirty, completely erasing the gloss of heroic nostalgia usually associated with the era.

The cast is very good. Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Jason Isaacs, and Anamaria Marinca are all very good in small supporting roles. Alicia von Rittberg is excellent as Emma, a young German girl who Norman falls for after a brief encounter. Her scene is key to Norman’s transformation, and von Rittberg’s performance is fantastic as she entrances the audience. Jon Bernthal plays Grady Travis, maybe the most unlikable member of Fury’s crew. He is very rough, but completely committed to his fellow mates. Michael Pena plays Trini Garcia, the driver of the tank. He has some funny moments, but he too is rough around the edges. Shia LaBeouf (who is actually very good in the film) plays Boyd Swan, a man who like his compatriots has allowed himself to become very rough to deal with the war but is also deeply conflicted about what he must do (as he is a man of God). Logan Lerman is good as Norman Ellison. He feels very green when we first meet him, only to undergrown a transformation as he realizes what it actually means to be in war – his morals taking a back seat to survival. Brad Pitt is very good as Don Collier (Wardaddy). With Pitt, the audience is allowed to see a bit more behind the scenes character wise. He puts on a front as a very hard man, but behind that façade the war is taking a great emotional toll. He knows, however, that he must be hard to keep his men alive, and in turn he must make them hard so that they can keep themselves alive, regardless of what it is doing to him and them emotionally.

Summary & score: Fury is one of the best recent WWII films as it takes on the era with grit and grim, effectively telling the story of the men on the ground (what they actually went through and faced) and not just labeling them heroes fighting the forces of evil. 8/10

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