Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fury (2014)

Are you Saved?
"Here I Am; Send Me"

There is no good day in war, just like there's no good day in Hell. "Good" days are only for the immature and the vain-glorious. Or for those who merely observe and report. "The only glory in war is surviving, if you know what I mean" wrote Samuel Fuller in his screenplay of The Big Red One. There are no gradations in the conditions of war. It's all bad. But if you want the worst days, look to the end of a war, where communal desperation mixes in with the carnage and the nearly complete rubble of what used to be civilization. No holds are barred. No one is safe. It comes down to numbers and bodies, and the second of our 20th Century "world wars" was emblematic of that, in all theaters of combat, but, most desperately, in the battles taking place in the center of what was to be an aborted "Thousand Year Reich," Hitler's Germany. They put helmets on kids and told them to do their duty for the fatherland, a Children's Crusade, and as successful as all the others. The last sacrifice in war is always the future. And that is the world of David Ayer's' new film, titled simply Fury.

Ayer's last movie (of note—in between he did an Arnold Schwarzenegger DEA movie, as long as we're talking about desperation—was the run-and-shoot End of Watch about L.A. cops in a drug war-zone. The camera-work has settled down and become more professional and traditional, but the shooting only intensifies in Fury, his film about a WWII tank platoon during the final stages of World War II.
The Allies have made their way to Germany and Hitler is down to using children as fighters. But, they're only a few years younger than the grizzled vets who have been years at war. The 66th Armor Division is limping along amid the rubble of battles and one Sherman Tank, nicknamed "Fury" by its crew (Brad Pitt in command, Shia Labeouf, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal) who have been together since North Africa, has just lost their co-pilot/bow-gunner "Red" in the last battle—there are parts of him still in the tank when they roll into a bivouac. The men are exhausted and Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Pitt) is barely keeping it together. So, it's not good news when he gets a new gunner/driver straight out of the typing pool (Logan Lerman).
Life inside a tank

This is just another bad piece of news for Collier who comes by his name "Wardaddy" quite literally. Things are already going badly and he gets a raw recruit, barely better than the kids Hitler is sending out, to work with the men he has diligently tried to keep alive (so that they can do the same for him) since Tunisia, and he has to employ the toughest of tough love to whip him into (or bend him out of) fighting shape. It's Blood n' Guts 101 and it would seem like hazing if it weren't a matter of life and death. The kid learns all too quickly the "simple math" (as Collier calls it) of combat—"You kill him or he kills you"—and pushes him beyond the tolerances of physicality and morality, of body and soul, and into the Practical and the Now.
Pretty typical war movie stuff. The tank crew is ethnically diverse, besides Pitt's father-figure and the waif, there's a bible-thumper (who is presented not ironically or cheaply and played by La Beouf in one of his better performances), an ethnic type (Latino division) and an "okie"-type, the kind of diversity (for the time) that represents the melting pot that is America, in visual contrast to the uniformly blonde soldiers of the Nazi forces. Where the American crews are rag-tag, the Nazi soldiers are tightly grouped, and more often than not faceless and indistinguishable from one another.
What's different is the savagery and conditions. Yes, the tank-crew is typical, but their behavior is anything but—they're all exhausted and in various shades of stunned PTSD as walking and rolling wounded. The guns spew out tracers that look like they've zapped out of a "Star Wars" movie and the casualties are quick and final—limbs and heads are vaporized in an instant by rocketing shells, and not contemplated or mourned—they just are and then are not. And that "simple math" is pretty basic—you either shoot an enemy soldier or you stab him or you club him, just so long as he is dead, dead, dead. Then you shoot them again, just to make sure. "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.." blah blah blah.  
But he also never won it on a slow learning curve, either. And "Wardaddy" takes the clerk under his wing...and beats him with it. It's survival out there (if you're lucky) and stragglers usually need to be buried. Or, as in one vivid image from the film, they're crushed into the mud until they're indistinguishable from just another stretch of bad road. If the kid doesn't learn—and learn fast—he'll be the weakest track in the tread and every member of the crew will die for his hesitancy. 

One thing that distinguishes Fury from most war-movies (and it checks off very very many of the tropes from the list) is its sense of history: there is none.   Nobody talks about home. Nobody talks about what they're going to do after the war. This is an existential war movie. These guys are living in the moment, because, for all their efforts to survive, they've enough experience to know it is unlikely. The only time "Wardaddy" reveals anything beyond the Here and the Now is when he pulls out a grenade container to reveal that it contains eggs that he has commandeered from a farm. There was enough fore-thought to think that he may use them someday.

But, that's it. There are very few war films that don't sentimentalize the state with the hope of a future. Fury is one of a handful that is pure nihilism and reflects the grunt's perspective of being there in a permanent temporary basis.

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