I’m no war movie buff. But the experience of Fury is rattling around in my soul like a live grenade inside the belly of a tank. Explosive and tension filled, the film pushes war into the forefront of our vision but puts us in the position to decide for ourselves how deeply we will let the introspection go. As graphic as Lone Survivor and yet as emotionally exploratory as Zero Dark Thirty, Fury combines a terrific writer/directorial effort by David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch) with lifetime best level performances by Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal. Welcome to Oscar season? More likely, this is an introduction to one of the greatest war films of all time.
In the opening vignette, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) takes down an S.S. officer in a scene reminiscent of the lull-you-to-sleep-and-then-pounce of films like Drive, Mystic River, and A History of Violence. That knot at the pit of your stomach clenches before we even know where we’re going, and it lasts well past the closing credits. Under Collier’s watchful eye, experienced soldiers “Bible” (LaBeouf), “Gordo” (Pena), and “Coon-Ass” (Bernthal) ‘welcome’ the green, former typist Norman Ellison (Lerman, Noah) to be the assistant driver of their tank, Fury. We’re tense because they are almost constantly under fire from German forces at the end of World War II in 1945, but also because of the dichotomy of Ellison’s sense of right and wrong in war and that of the more experienced soldiers.
Several scenes stand out, which I will not divulge too much of now, but which should be referenced. There’s the case of a surrendered Nazi and Collier’s judgment that to become a man, a soldier, and a warrior, that Ellison must be the one to execute him because it’s either the Nazi dies or Ellison does. There’s the occupation of a German town, and the subsequent display of how the soldiers handle the possessions and people left behind, that left me wanting to close my eyes out of sheer anticipation of what could happen. And there is the final battle more than hinted at in the trailer where the Fury’s crew must decide their own fates at a crossroads.
I want to dive into the theology and spirit of the film, from Bible’s quotations to the various conversations the men have. But it’s clearly a movie filled with style (a blending of ‘old school’ John Wayne war flicks with Ayer’s own sense of violence and culture) and historical knowledge of situations and real experiences. It’s scored well by Steven Price (Gravity, Academy Award for Best Score) and shot well, by Russian cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, who also worked The East and End of Watch. It’s the reminder that Pitt’s smolder can be the engine to drive a movie, that LaBeouf is more than a plagiarist, that Lerman’s turn in Noah as a tormented son was merely the beginning. But there’s too much not to get to with the concepts and ideologies.
Sure, war is hell (thank you, General Sherman), but other movies have already emphasized that. Fury hones in on what it actually does to a man’s heart and soul. We see the ideology of Bible, in the way he prays with dying soldiers and tells the crew that God has called them to this, that they see their own calling in battling back the German forces. We see it in the way that Collier proves noble at times and vicious in others. We see it in the way that Coon-Ass (I prefer ‘Animal’) sees something in Ellison that he admires but can’t bring himself to embrace. We see it in the realization that Collier holds that God’s grace keeps them alive, not luck.
Fury is an extrapolation of “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it goes deeper into what they believe as they try to numb their minds to the men they’ve killed and justify for themselves why God exists and this violence could happen in and through them. It’s a reminder that war isn’t cool or fun or glorious but rather the least human situation humankind finds itself in, aiming weapons against another human being with the intent to push them out of existence. It’s a staunchly different picture than those films that gratify violence by unmarked ‘heroes’ and seem to say that pointing a gun at another human being and firing is somehow easy. Instead, we find ourselves wondering whether the war makes the men behave the way they do or if war instead that vehicle that unlocks in them what is already there.
All of this leads to basic theological questions like “what is humankind’s true nature?” and “How can I be a person of faith in the midst of violence?” We see it when Bible asks Ellison if he is saved and Ellison tells him he’s been baptized; Bible tells him that those aren’t the same thing, but that Ellison should be prepared to see the worst of what a human being could do to another. [I’d argue that Ellison sees both over the course of the film.] I sensed at one point, no, several points, that Ayer’s was asking us to consider humanity and not just American patriotism or anti-Nazi fervor.
I should briefly reference Joyeux Noel…(and say that I found myself wrestling with themes identified in Zero Dark Thirty) as I considered the justice of what the soldiers were called to do and the sacrifice which they give in terms of their spiritual and physical lives. It’s too simplistic to make it Ellison’s newbie versus Collier’s wizened veteran because Ayer’s depictions are too nuanced. It’s also a question of how we are driven by our faith, our hope, and our beliefs to justify behavior, ours or others, in holy wars and everyday decisions.
This is humanity, this is war, and this is life.
And we could all learn about ourselves if we considered the decisions we make about how our actions impact others, how we value life, and ultimately, what we believe in.
SPOILER: Read only if you don’t care or have already seen it!
The last shot, of the defeated, broken, and ultimately abandoned tank at the crossroads is one that I will think about for quite some time. For men who believed or came to believe in something greater than themselves, they literally die on their own cross by staying with Collier and fighting against insurmountable odds. Matthew 16:24 quotes Jesus saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Fury implies that these warriors did follow, were disciples, whether it was of Collier or Jesus, we may not be sure, but disciples who did die on the cross they were committed to in the end. This is powerful stuff!