A very good war drama, replete with fantastically well shot action sequences and brilliant performances, that’s just shy of greatness.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
War is hell. That much we know. According to the cast, who have stated many times during various interviews this past week or so, making a war film with (writer & director) David Ayer is also hell. Three months of strict training regimes, rehearsal after rehearsal after rehearsal, sitting inside a tin can for hours on end with the smell of another man’s body odour forever burnt into the inside of their nostrils; Ayer used all of his personal experiences of serving in the armed forces (on a submarine, no less) to convey as realistic an experience as possible. It was all worth it in the end though as it has resulted in a strong character driven drama with five fantastic performances.
Along with its gala screening closing the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and various previews around the UK on Sunday, and an already high box office taking in the US, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this pop up on many peoples watch-lists in the coming few days, if it’s not there already. You’ve probably seen the trailer a hundred times. Or, at the very least, on more than one occasion you’ve had the annoyingly-still-handsome Brad Pitt’s face fly past you as it’s plastered all over the side of a bus. The marketing for this two and a bit hour movie has been relentless.
Shot mostly in Hertfordshire (and a bit in Oxfordshire) in the UK, the plot actually takes place in and around Berlin towards the end of the Second World War. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is the sergeant in command of a tank unit comprised of Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña), Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) and Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shia LaBeouf). The four of them, along with their recently deceased comrade in arms have been together since the war began, fighting their way through Africa to Europe. Their close-knit group is about to have a spanner thrown in the works as they’re forced to recruit a new gunner, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who has no previous combat experience and appears to be reluctant to pull the trigger. As they march across Germany, capturing and killing the last of the Nazi soldiers, they’re bent, twisted and forced into the shape of something resembling a family.
And that really is the key word to describe the main theme of Ayer’s movie. It’s about family. As much as the film carries with it messages about the horrors of war, about the trauma inflicted on those who participated in one of the most horrendous events in modern history, ultimately what’s being conveyed is how people can find solace in the unlikeliest of places. Almost every war film made has to deal with the concept of good versus evil and how to presents this; either with anti-war messages such as those in the immediate post-war era of the 50s; or glorifying and honouring those who served with propaganda films funded by the military and government; or even just stating things in as matter-of-fact manner possible. It’s as pronounced as it’s ever going to be with a World War II based film, with the allies on one side (the good) and the axis on the other (the evil). However, the good here is clearly defined by the warmth and sometimes brutally honest home that the group find together in their heavily-armoured mobile-weapon, an M4A3E8 Sherman tank. It’s not in Ayer’s interests to educate you about right and wrong.
As others have mentioned (including Carole in her LFF diary article), Fury hinges on the performances of its main cast. If they had failed to convince you to see the characters as a family, with all their camaraderie, banter and friction that comes with it, then nothing else around that would’ve worked at all. As it happens, Pitt really gets into and perfectly suits his position as the father of the dysfunctional family, whilst his relationship with the youngest member (Lerman) grows naturally throughout. Peña and Bernthal add a little humour to their roles that is so desperately required in juxtaposition to the bleakness and grim realities of war. A big surprise for many is the multi-layered performance from Shia LaBeouf as the man of faith. Not me, I hasten to add. I’ve been a fan since his role in Lawless. Probably even more so since he started to go a bit crazy. The main point is that they all work as well as individual, well-rounded and realistic characters who develop and grow over the course of the runtime, as much as they all work well together. There’s a certain tenderness displayed during the quieter moments that allows the viewer to see these men as human beings rather than just soldiers doing their job.
If it sounds like I’m gushing too much, then that’s just me avoiding the issue of one or two criticisms I have. Let’s get them out of the way!
What is there left, really, for world war films to tell us? Hasn’t it all been done before? World War II dramas from a soldiers perspective are so few and far between these days. Excluding Inglorious Basterds, which I hasten to call a World War movie, pictures like Band of Brothers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and of course Saving Private Ryan, these are all approximately a decade old now. Surely all that this tells us is that this particular well has run dry. In many respects, Fury is absolutely nothing new. However, this doesn’t seem like much of a criticism in and of itself. Who cares how original it is, if it’s actually done well enough, right? There’s enough here for it to feel worthwhile telling this story, even if there isn’t a whole lot to learn about that’s not been seen previously.
Saying all that, if you’re going into this expecting to see Saving Private Ryan, only newer and flashier, then you won’t be too disappointed. It’s absolutely not a sweeping war epic with bloody battles on the beaches of Normandy. There are many, many bloody battles as they traverse Germany, but they are on a somewhat smaller scale. What is similar to Spielberg’s iconic movie is that there are plenty of exceptionally well shot action scenes. Battles between soldiers and tanks that take place in tiny rubble covered streets, or large open fields, or narrow country roads, they all command respect for their meticulous design and unwaveringly brutal execution. As Wardaddy leans out of the top of his tank, leading his men into fight after fight, not a single one disappoints. Despite the brooding family drama, you’re never far from the next ricocheting shell or flashing tracer round. One particular tank-on-tank clash is simply sublime. It’s intense, exciting and even harrowing at times.
At two and a bit hours long, the pace isn’t fast enough for it to zip by unnoticed, but it’s not a chore to sit through by any stretch of the imagination. The dialogue did induce a cringe or two on occasion, as if it was written for a melodrama but acted like a deeply serious Carl Theodor Dreyer film. However, mostly, the script and performances went hand in hand. Whether the team are sitting around a dinner table or cooped up in a tank on the brink of what may be their last stand, regardless of whether or not the dialogue can be occasionally cheesy, you’re guaranteed to be totally engrossed in what they are saying to one another.
The biggest compliment that I can pay Fury is to say that you definitely do get a sense of that family atmosphere between the quintet that Ayer wanted to instil. These men, these soldiers, they are entirely believable and Ayer has shown that if you can put a bit of personality into a World War film, then there is still something worth watching in the genre yet.
Fury is released in cinemas nationwide from tomorrow, Wednesday 22nd October 2014.