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‘Fury’: War is hell

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

On June 6, 1944, nearly three million Allied troops crossed the English Channel and landed on the Nazi-occupied beaches of Normandy. It marked the largest invasion by sea in history. Although this was the pivotal battle of World War II, it portended months of remaining hard-fought military confrontations.

“Fury” focuses on an American Sherman tank crew during this post-Normandy period. An early vignette introduces their leader, Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). A mounted German cavalry officer is riding past a half dozen seemingly disabled U.S. tanks, surveying the damage. Unexpectedly, Collier jumps from behind a tank turret, startling the German, before yanking him from his steed and stabbing him to death right though his eye socket. The scene epitomizes the stunning choreography and the sheer viscerality of “Fury.” It also defines Collier as an exceptionally agile and resourceful warrior. At 50, Pitt still demonstrates consummate athleticism. This bravura moment recalls “Troy,” when Pitt’s Achilles character leaped up and rotated in midair to dispatch his formidable foe, the giant, Boagrius.

This photo released by Sony Pictures Entertainment shows Brad Pitt as Wardaddy in a scene from "Fury." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Entertainment, Giles Keyte)

This photo released by Sony Pictures Entertainment shows Brad Pitt as Wardaddy in a scene from “Fury.” (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Entertainment, Giles Keyte)

Collier’s tank crew has been together through the battles of North Africa and Italy. It includes a verse-quoting gunner, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf); a Latino driver, Trini “Gordo”  Garcia  (Michael Peña), and a crude, redneck mechanic, Grady “Coon Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). Their fifth crew member has just been killed in battle.

When the crew returns to base, they meet their fallen comrade’s replacement, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). The neophyte addition has been abruptly plucked from the typing pool to join this front-line unit. It’s a dramatic segue for Norman to make from his prior cloistered microcosm and clerical duties. His first assignment is to grab a bucket and scrape off the gruesome vestiges of his predecessor’s eyeball and face from the walls of the tank.

There’s more transition for Ellison. When a German soldier is captured, Collier forces Ellison to shoot the prisoner in the head at point blank range. Ellison vigorously protests, albeit to no avail. Collier regards the killing as a requisite rite of passage for his young soldier. So much for Collier’s concern for the niceties of the then prevailing Geneva Conventions. We are confronted with the reality that our protagonist is a morally tarnished figure.

We see further evidence of Collier’s moral relativism in a subsequent scene with two attractive German women (Annamaria Marinca, Alicia von Rittenberg). Collier is at once heroic in protecting their honor, yet matter of fact in expecting to receive sexual favors in exchange for a proffering few freshly laid eggs. It is a memorable scene, which helps contextualize the film’s many battlefield confrontations.

“Fury” escalates further, when Captain Waggoner (Oscar Isaacs) assigns Collier’s Sherman tank crew to protect a key crossroad against an advancing S.S. unit and an impregnable Panzer. What chance does Collier and his severely out-gunned crew have? Is their assignment anything more than a dilatory suicide mission?

A screen capture from the   trailer for "Fury" at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OGvZoIrXpg

A screen capture from the trailer for “Fury” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OGvZoIrXpg

Brad Pitt does another fine job with underplaying his role. Even as he convincingly projects leadership and mentors his charges, he does not shy away from embodying some of his character’s less appealing aspects. Heretofore, Logan Lerman has portrayed juveniles in such vehicles as the “Percy Jackson” films and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Here, he acquits himself as a fledgling trooper. Who is reviled by his comrades for being soft and inexperienced.

The film’s screenwriter/director, David Ayer, is best known for his “Training Day” script. Since then, he has helmed his own screenplay for the underseen “End of Watch,” His résumé is also cluttered with dubious dreck like the writing and directing of “Sabotage.”  With this stellar work, Ayer has achieved a new level of quality.

Working with cinematographer, Roman Vasyanov, and editors, Jay Cassidy and Dody Dorn, Ayer produces a beautiful visual tapestry, replete with taut pacing. The battle scenes crackle with dramatic tension. The film assiduously avoids lingering on corpses being bulldozed into a mass grave or of children’s bodies hanging on public display. This establishes how routine such happenstances are. This visual text is enhanced by a sonorous score by Steven Price.

In nomenclature coined by Studs Terkel, World War II is referred to as a so-called “good war.”  The Nazis’ systematically annihilated millions of civilians in concentration camps. This was complemented by the Rape of Nanking and other heinous war crimes against civilians perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army. These foul deeds make it easy to demonize our war-time enemies. However, does it vouchsafe that all of the actions of U.S. troops were pristinely pure? “Fury” refutes this notion and provides a textured perspective on the realities of war.

This film rivals Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” and Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” as top notch examples of the genre. It is full of brilliantly crafted moments of military valor and action. What makes this revisionist film so memorable is the way in which it strips war of the ennobling patina of Hollywood glamour. Instead, it is depicted as bloody, chaotic, and full of moral ambiguity. The intensely gripping “Fury” reminds us that war is hell.

FURY  **** R (for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout)134 minutes

 

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.

 

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