A puzzling, morally ambiguous film about men at war
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Well, I’m not sure what to tell you about this one. The audience filing out of our screening of “Fury” was obviously pleased, tossing out descriptive comments such as “intense” and “nerve-wracking” and “full of great acting.” And that’s all true—“Fury” is all of those things. But when someone finally got around to asking my opinion, all I could offer at the moment was, “I haven’t made up my mind yet.” You see, I was still trying to figure out exactly what this movie was trying to say. I kind of still am.
On the one hand, “Fury” appears to want us to honor the heroic sacrifices made by the men who volunteer to go to war for their country. On the other, it seems to want to convince us that there are no heroes in war to be honored. There is a moral ambiguity that hangs over the film as thick as the fog which opens and closes it.
It is in that fog we first see the tank known as Fury, sitting mud covered and immobile amongst an untold number of dead bodies and burning vehicles. Fury’s crew is huddled inside still alive, however, and the film wastes no time in setting up their disparate personalities.
There’s Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) the grizzled commander, Gordo (Michael Peña) the alcoholic Mexican-American driver, Bible (Shia LaBeouf) the scripture quoting shell loader and “Guy With The Nickname I Probably Can’t Say On A Religious Site” (Jon Bernthal) the southern redneck gunner. It’s a group straight out of every war movie or comic book ever made.
The stereotypes aren’t lazy screenwriting, though. Instead, they’re a means of quickly drawing us in so that we can just as quickly recognize there is something wrong with these men. This becomes apparent after a still wet-behind-the-ears desk jockey named Norman (Logan Lerman) is assigned to be the crew’s new assistant driver. The veterans begin to rag on Norman about where he might be from, because that’s what you do to rookies in these kind of movies, but when Norman actually starts to tell them where he was born, the others quickly let him know they don’t really care. Norman is just another potential dead person to them. That’s how they’ve come to see the world.
Norman’s first given task is to clean the remains of his predecessor out of the tank, a duty he grudgingly carries out until he finds half the man’s face lying on the floor. Then he vomits. An audience member or two might as well. The movie unflinchingly depicts the physical cost of war. Even when the excessive use of tracer fire calls to mind the pew-pew weapons of Star Wars, you’re quickly shocked back to reality as bodies begin to burst. There is more gore in “Fury” than in your average “Saw” film, but it’s done for the sake of realism rather than entertainment, if that matters.
Having his fears that Norman is not ready for the realities of combat confirmed, Wardaddy tries to force the boy to shoot a captured German soldier in the back. Wardaddy’s reasoning is that once a war reaches a certain point, the only way to end it is to keep killing the enemy until they give up. To do that, you need men on your side willing to kill the enemy at any time. Oddly, none of the 30 or 40 soldiers watching this scenario play out does or says anything to stop it. Do they agree with Wardaddy, are they too shocked to act, is it a little bit of both? We’re never told.
The moral ambiguity of the film comes to a head, oddly enough, in the movie’s one extended non-battle scene. Having helped capture a small German town, Wardaddy drags Norman up to an apartment where he’s noticed two women are hiding. To Norman’s amazement, Wardaddy comforts the women, provides them with food for a meal and encourages Norman to seek sex with the younger of the two ladies while he relaxes and reads a paper.
Unfortunately, the calm domesticity of the scene is shattered when the rest of the drunken crew arrives. Watching the uncomfortable dinner that follows is like waiting for a bomb to go off. While Norman tries to protect his new paramour, his crewmates bully the women and taunt wardaddy unmercifully for his unexpected lapse into civility. For his part, Wardaddy remains serene, deflecting the personal barbs and reassuring the women. And yet he never orders his soldiers to stop what they’re doing. Having passed through the same hells his men have, Wardaddy neither condones nor condemns them.
Is that what “Fury” is trying to say? That if we demand our people go to war, then we shouldn’t pass judgement on their actions when they feel compelled to surrender their humanity in order to carry out that war? I’m no expert on Aquinas so correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that fits in with “just war theory.” Or does the film simply want us to recognize that this is what can happen to some people when we send them to fight our battles? If that’s the case, then mission accomplished.
But I’m still not sure. The film remains doggedly ambiguous. What I can say is that “Fury” is excellently made. David Ayer’s direction is confident and strong, the cinematography is both bleak and beautiful, and the actors turn in some of their best work to date. Pitt jettisons his usual charisma for a stoic performance that’s pitch perfect for the story, Lerman (whom we last saw as Ham in “Noah”) proves himself a young actor to keep an eye on, and LaBeouf accomplishes the near impossible task of appearing on screen without making you want to punch him in the gut.
“Fury” is, without a doubt, a good war movie. But I’m not yet willing to call it a great war movie, not until I can cut through the film’s ever present fog (literal and metaphorical) and determine exactly where it stands. I want some time to think about it. And as the fog of war closes in and the credits roll, maybe that’s all “Fury” really wants of its audience after all.
In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia,David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.