David Ayer's epic Fury gives good face, but that's all.
My Rating: ** out of **** stars
A review of the film and compare/contrast Fury with recent and classic films about World War II, as well as claim bullshit on the "Greatest Generation", and what an actual gritty war picture looks like.
One of the things on the top of my mind throughout Fury was watching Brad Pitt play another veteran, war weary soldier, like he did in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. I suppose five years is a pretty long time but one has to wonder why Pitt, who gives a good performance as always, would choose subject matter that not only evokes Inglourious Basterds, but is infinitely less interesting.
Plot: The film is set during the last month of the European Theater of war during World War II in April 1945. As the Allies make their final push into Nazi Germany, a battle-hardened U.S. Army sergeant in the 2nd Armored Division named Wardaddy commands an M4A3E8 Sherman tank called "Fury" and its five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered and outgunned, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.
The "Greatest Generation"
I won't bash Ayer too much for trying to make a gritty, throwback war picture. After all, the war film genre itself right now is in pretty big shambles post Saving Private Ryan, and post Inglourious Basterds. There's only so many themes you can weave through a war picture and if you plan to hit all the cliche plot points and themes like Ayer does, you better do it a bit more interesting than this.
That being said, the film is gorgeously filmed by Ayer and his DP Roman Vasyanov, who's teamed with Ayer before, End of Watch and Shia LeBeouf's Charlie Countryman. Ayer up until now has been more known for his gritty, realistic depictions of LA street violence in films he's written like Training Day, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue, S.W.A.T., and also written/directed, Harsh Times, and End of Watch.
However, this isn't the first time David Ayer has worked within the WWII genre, and the last time he did, he was embroiled in controversy.
Ayer wrote the submarine thriller U-571 (an enclosed space just like the tank in Fury), a fictional account of the United States capturing the Enigma code rather than Great Britain. The furor that surrounded the film's release led British Prime Minister Tony Blair to claim that it was an "affront to the memories" of those involved and U.S. President Bill Clinton to write a letter emphasizing the film's fictional nature. Ayer has said that U-571 distorted history by this assertion and that he would not do it again. "It was a distortion", he said, "a mercenary decision to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience. Both my grandparents were officers in World War II, and I would be personally offended if somebody distorted their achievements."
I'll give Ayer credit, not many people in Hollywood would admit to something like that. The only problem is, with the fictional story being told in Fury, he kind of does it again.
Brad Pitt's "Wardaddy" crew includes, and stop me if you notice any cliches, the Scripture-quoting “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), Latino driver “Gordo” (Michael Pena, affecting an early-century Mexican accent) and barely evolved swamp-rat mechanic “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal). Finally, our guide through the film is fresh faced rookie Logan Lerman's clean-shaven, wet-behind-the-ears Army typist, Private Norman Ellison, assigned to join them at the outset. More for reasons of dramatic convenience than practical necessity.. He doesn't get the "Machine" nickname until later because as in all war movie cliches he must learn to become a man first, and Ayer litters PLENTY of scenes with them.
By the way, what other somewhat recent war film had a clean-shaven, young, not very masculine soldier brought on to join a team on a mission in WWII? Oh yeah, Jeremy Davies' Timothy E. Upham, the cartographer/translator in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Ah you see but Lerman's Norman is a typist not an interpreter like Upham..
Speaking of Steven Spielberg's overrated Saving Private Ryan, which this film tries to emulate as well, Fury very much is pro "Greatest Generation". I think the whole concept of the "Greatest Generation" is complete bullshit fabricated through American myth more than anything else. The "Greatest Generation" was not better than later generations, and World War II was not "the good war" as so many younger filmmakers portray it as.
Terrence Malick's infinitely superior The Thin Red Line, released the same year as Ryan, had much greater depth, more to say about the horrors of war, and never pandered to that "Greatest Generation".
Clint Eastwood's vastly underrated 2005 film Flags of Our Fathers, also dealt with the flaws of a so called great era. The finale of Flags of Our Fathers has more depth and humanity in two and a half minutes than Fury has in two hours and fifteen minutes. Spielberg did produce Eastwood's film, and because of that Flags of Our Fathers got immediately comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, which was kind of unfair. For one thing, Flags of Our Fathers is based off an actual story about the flag raising at the famous Battle of Iwo Jima. Saving Private Ryan, other than D-Day taking place is completely fabricated. Also, Flags has actual themes like the tension between boyhood and manhood, heroism, the misguided media, individual vs. country, and perception vs. reality. Ryan....yeah the battle scenes were shot well. Same problem with Ayer's Fury.
Cracked did a great article on 5 Bullshit 'Facts' Everyone Believes About WWII I highly recommend if you want further reading into what my opinions mirror on that.
Also, Oliver Stone's brilliant Showtime documentary, The Untold History of the United States, presents a compelling argument as to why the "Greatest Generation" is pure bullshit.
Speaking of other particular influences for Fury, I couldn't help but think about a legendary, but still largely underrated filmmaker Samuel Fuller, who actually fought in World War II, and many of his films, particularly 1980's The Big Red One, are based on his experiences. Fuller's 1951 masterpiece The Steel Helmet also serves as a source of inspiration through it's man on a mission tale with a cast of eclectic, perhaps cliched characters. Fuller's film was actually the first film made about the Korean War, but the same principles apply. However, Fury, unlike The Steel Helmet, doesn't cover new ground.
The Steel Helmet confronts American racism when a North Korean Communist prisoner baits a black soldier in conversation with accounts of American society's Jim Crow rules. Moreover, the Korean soldier makes the first-ever mention, in a Hollywood film, of the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. The film infuriated the military who had provided assistance in the form of military stock footage. Army personnel summoned Fuller for a conference on the film. The U.S Army was upset over Sgt. Zack's shooting of a prisoner of war. Fuller replied that in his World War II service it frequently happened, and had his former commanding officer, Brigadier General George A. Taylor, telephone the Pentagon to confirm it.
Now that's what a real gritty war picture is supposed to be. Notice that in any of the Fury clips I've shown?
Nowadays, like in Fury, these stock characters merely serve as just that, rather then trying to explore larger issues. Interesting that filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Oliver Stone, who made an Oscar winning film about his own experiences in Vietnam (Platoon), get criticized as "anti-American". What for telling the truth? These are what these filmmakers saw in their experiences, and they made these films largely out of the disgust of how pro war Hollywood was, and still is to a certain extent these days.
Where's that voice of the Iraq War generation? Someone who fought for their country and wants to make a film that both honors them, and shows that some American soldiers were extremely troubled men. I'm not saying the only good war pictures are those made by veterans themselves. Malick wasn't a war veteran, De Palma (Casualties of War) famously dodged the draft, but they've made serious war films that ask moral questions. Tarantino's Basterds transcends the genre because of it's altering of history, and it works as a kind of satire on the film Fury wants to be.
Bottom Line: Fury is a nice looking, visceral World War II film but not much more.
P.S. I wish filmmakers would approach war films from a more character based approach on what the horrors of war are really like, instead of simply paying a dubious homage, and thinking only in genre terms.
Maybe Clint Eastwood's upcoming film American Sniper can do for the Iraq War what he did with Flags of Our Fathers in WWII.