October 23, 2014

What’s in a War Movie?

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In Fury, Brad Pitt once again plays a Nazi-killing macho man whose self-confidence is his defining trait. However, unlike in Inglourious Basterds, the deaths in this film aren’t for laughs or cinematic revisionism. They’re to show war at its most base and horrifying sense: innards, intestines, heads vaporized by tank fire. What is perhaps best about Fury is its serious attention to detail when it comes to these grisly matters. We hear the whirring as turrets turn; we feel and see the absolute grayness of the war-torn German countryside. A particularly haunting image is when Pitt’s tank rolls over a body that has clearly been rolled over so many times that it basically has been flattened into the mud. The film also goes beyond just a depiction of general war, for its tank scenes feel wonderfully specific and give the viewer the intense feelings of claustrophobia and camaraderie that come from being in these compact, beautiful killing machines.

The main plot of the film follows Pitt’s character, Don Collier (nicknamed “Wardaddy”), as he leads a tank crew into the last American advance through Nazi Germany. It is often mentioned that the Americans are clearly going to win, but that Hitler out of desperation has waged total war, refusing to surrender and using every last woman and child to fight an already-lost war. When the gunner dies at the beginning of the film, the innocent Norman (Logan Lerman) who has just been transferred from being a typist, is the gunner’s replacement. Lerman’s character, and his moral (de)evolution as Pitt brutalizes him and teaches him how to wage war, is certainly clichéd.  And the various characters in the crew are clichéd as well: Shia LaBeouf is a Bible-quoting enigma; Jon Bernthal is a pure brute, etc. But the film is very effective at extracting mindfulness from these seemingly mindless scenes or characters. When the Americans capture a German who surrenders and pleads for them not to kill him because he has a family, and Collier forces Norman to shoot the man, we know we’ve seen this before. But its uncompromising realness, and refusal to adopt the air of “isn’t this just awful,” makes the scene extremely effective.

Perhaps the most interesting scene in the film, and the one that least conventionally belongs to a “war movie,” occurs in the middle when the American battalion takes over a small German town. Pitt and Lerman’s characters barge into an apartment where two women are hiding. They ask that food be made for them and Norman flirts with the younger, pretty one. The possibility of sexual assault permeates the air, and while we know Norman’s reluctance to harm, it is much less clear for Collier. The scene excellently portrays the immense power men have over women in these situations. When the other drunken soldiers barge in, and make the scene more threatening, we feel the tension between civilization and savagery. But even this is a simplistic reading of the scene. The ease of being brutal in these scenarios is tempting, especially for soldiers who have been going through years of hell. And both the soldiers and women here are victims of larger forces. But it doesn’t change that one side has the power, and there is a correct choice to be made.

As you can probably tell, I really liked Fury, which makes the finale of the film more disappointing than it would have been if the previous stuff hadn’t been so good. Without giving much away, the film ends in a “last stand” type battle, with the crew fighting an entire S.S. battalion from inside their broken down tank. While this choice is not inherently indefensible, the logic behind it is. The film before this moment had given an ultra-realistic (or at least certainly uncompromising, I know nothing about what war is like) and thoughtful depiction of war. But it throws it all away so there can be a big moment where the soldiers decide to stay and fight the Germans, as if they’re a sports team massively down in a game but is going to keep trying anyway for glory. Moreover, all the innovative filmmaking used for the battle scenes is also lost (a scene where the tank takes on a German Tiger task is the battle highlight of the film). Gone are the shots where we follow the churning of the threading of the truck’s tires and the shots where we see the gunners’ extremely limited POV perspectives. Now we’re treated to the crew just firing machine guns like Rambo.

However, the last scene doesn’t negate Fury’s overall excellence. Nothing new will be learned from seeing this film; you already know that war sucks in your brain. But Fury hits you in your gut and soul.