War movies tend to follow some fairly traditional beats, emphasizing the horrors of combat while glorifying the sacrifice that soldiers make in order to protect their comrades-in-arms. This is particularly true in World War II films, with an added understanding that Nazis are entirely disposable bad guys on the opposite end of the moral spectrum from the righteous American saviors. With Fury, however, director David Ayer seems to reject that rosy picture of American involvement in the war, and while our heroes happen to be fighting for the right side of the conflict, war has made them anything but virtuous.
Our film opens on a tank crew, led by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt), that has just lost their bow gunner to enemy fire. It is the end of the war, as American troops roll into Germany and Hitler’s regime makes its final death throes. Enter Norman Ellison, a recruit who has been trained as a typist and has only just now been thrust into combat. He is the new replacement bow gunner, and nobody on the five-man crew is happy about that, least of all him. As we learn from Norman’s perspective, the soldiers are far from the righteous protectors of freedom that history and period propaganda have shown us; these are men destroyed by war and are only being held together by Wardaddy’s guidance.
The true genius of this film is that Norman’s character arc isn’t so much a coming of age story as a slow and dark transformation into the type of person his tank-mates have become. They are excessively violent, prone to lewd jokes about raping civilians and desecrating the Bible, and take a perverse joy out of killing Nazis. Even civilian death does not phase them, as enemy Germans are just enemy Germans to them, with civilian rules of engagement only observed under threat of personal reprimand. The true tension of the story comes from seeing how far Norman is going to slip into their habits, as it becomes increasingly clear that their psychopathy is only their coping mechanism for the daily horrors they must endure. This is only accentuated by Pitt’s fantastic portrayal of Wardaddy, a mentor to Norman who is only barely keeping himself together more than his crew and acts as Norman’s lifeline to humanity.
But even beyond the superb characterization, the action scenes in this film are some of the most unique I’ve seen in a period war piece. Almost all of the combat is done in the crew’s tank, and my gods does David Ayer know how to direct some tense tank action. Tanks are lumbering beasts that require the coordination of multiple people, meaning that every maneuver becomes a race and shouting match to get in position to fire at an enemy’s weak spot. Between cramped close-ups of the crew to aerial shots of the tanks moving into position, to hearing the Germans frantically shout their own commands, these scenes are some of the most intense and unique I can think of from a recent war flick.
All in all, I really enjoyed Fury. It’s unapologetically dark, so while it hits some of the same beats that other war films do concerning honor and sacrifice, David Ayer presents those beats in a context that is rarely acknowledged in American cinema, and that makes for a welcome change. If you want to come out of this film feeling good about humanity, then I don’t think this is your cup of tea. But if you want some intense action and a bold take on how war can change a person, this is probably right up your alley.
Between this, Fight Club, and Inglorious Basterds, Brad Pitt seems to be the go-to guy for deconstructing masculine ideals. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.