NPR logo The Brutalities Of War Bring Surprising Angles To 'Fury'

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The Brutalities Of War Bring Surprising Angles To 'Fury'

Brad Pitt plays Wardaddy, an Army sergeant leading a mission in Nazi Germany. i

Brad Pitt plays Wardaddy, an Army sergeant leading a mission in Nazi Germany. Giles Keyte/Columbia Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Giles Keyte/Columbia Pictures
Brad Pitt plays Wardaddy, an Army sergeant leading a mission in Nazi Germany.

Brad Pitt plays Wardaddy, an Army sergeant leading a mission in Nazi Germany.

Giles Keyte/Columbia Pictures

Fury, David Ayer's brutal, reflective, wholly absorbing World War II movie, is about tank-to-tank combat and the way war degrades everyone it touches, but for about a minute it looks like a Western. A rider on a white horse crosses a misty field in no great hurry, gradually filling the frame. Ayer's patient camera tracks him into a metal thicket of burning American Shermans and their superior German counterparts, Tigers.

Then Brad Pitt tackles the rider, whose Nazi uniform has come into focus, and drives his knife through the officer's eye and into his brain. (He spares the horse.) It's April 1945, the last, exhausted gasp of "Good War" in Europe; in a few weeks Hitler will kill himself in a bunker and the Thousand-Year Reich will surrender in Year 13. But Fury reminds us like no film since Saving Private Ryan 16 years ago that there was nothing good about it, and it does so with considerably less flag-waving. And as with Saving Private Ryan, a few clumsy steps in the late going — specifically, a final act fueled by the sort of fantasy machismo that the film has until that point avoided — do nothing to blunt the impact of Fury's superb first 90 minutes.

Though it was shot mostly in Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire, England, this is the odd military picture wherein (save for Jason Isaacs doing his best Moe Szyslak impression), the American soldiers are actually played by Americans. We follow the crew of Fury, a Sherman tank that's been in the war since Africa, 1942. Everyone in its five-man crew has a "war name": the born-again Shia LaBeouf is "Bible," the alcoholic Michael Peña is "Gordo," and so on.

As the commander, Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier, Pitt has the same not-quite-standard-issue haircut he sported as the Nazi-huntin' Army lieutenant in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds five years ago. Though he gets to snack on lines like "this is a 'merican tank; we talk 'merican" and scold his men to "knock off the horseplay," there's none of that Tarantino impishness in his performance here. Wardaddy is an exhausted, righteous killer doing penance for untold sins.

Pitt wears the role as John Wayne would've, occasionally generous but often aloof. When he needs to mourn, he's careful to do it out of the sight of his men. Taking in the rich performances of the strong supporting cast — Peña as the half-drunk tank driver, Logan Lerman as the green clerk-typist Norman Ellison, Jon Bernthal as Grady, a brute who probably never had a toothbrush until the Army issued him one — it becomes casually apparent what a generous star Pitt has grown into, leaving air in the room for others else to breathe. Even LaBeouf is convincing.

In Ayer's steady hands, war-film clichés play more like the obligatory notes in a classical tragedy. One example: Norman (that clerk-typist) has been ordered to the front to replace the slain gunner of Fury, Wardaddy's M4. (Some of the tanks in the unit are named Matador, Lucy Sue, Old Phyllis and Murder Inc.) Sensitive and educated, he thinks Gordo must be insane when the driver tells him to spray a pile of probably already-dead Germans with machine-gun fire. Because he hesitated, Wardaddy wrestles him to the ground and forces him to execute a captured German soldier who is holding up photos of his family and pleading for his life. Rough stuff.

Ayer, a master of sweaty atmosphere, makes us imagine what the inside of this Sherman must smell like; five unwashed guys locked in a can together for three years, their boredom sporadically punctuated by rage or terror. He's best known for his grim policiers Training Day and End of Watch. Most recently, he made Sabotage, a gnarly, disreputable thriller about crooked DEA agents.

Fury is a big step up in sophistication. Where it elevates itself from being merely a believably grimy, well-acted war drama is in its long and surprising middle act. Liberating a town where the S.S. has been hanging German civilians who refuse their Fuhrer's order that "every man, woman and child" fight the Allied invaders, the Americans sort out the S.S. soldiers to be executed and almost as quickly decide they're entitled to the town's women, plying them with chocolate and nylons and cigarettes. It matters little if the ladies aren't explicitly saying no, since they're likely terrified, maybe starving and surrounded by strange men with guns.

Ayer considers the sexual politics of life during wartime in a long sequence wherein Wardaddy and Norman invite themselves into the home of a German woman and her pretty young relative, played by Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg. Wardaddy offers them a gift — a half-dozen fresh eggs (where did he find them?) — and takes advantage of the rare opportunity to bathe. The younger of the pair is charmed when Norman sits down at their piano and begins to play, but any pleasure she takes in the music is only in the context of the fact that a bit earlier, the older one was hiding her under the bed to protect her.

It becomes clear that we're witnessing sexual assault taking place effectively if not literally at gunpoint: The women have only the options of these two, who can sit at a table and be civil for a few precious hours, or their rougher, more profane brothers, who eventually shove their way in. When Wardaddy lays down orders ruling out the kinds of mistreatment from which he chooses to protect these women, Grady vents his rage, taking the girl's plate from her and licking her food. Rather than rebuke his subordinate for his repellent conduct, Wardaddy simply trades plates with the girl, taking the contaminated dish for himself. He has made these men into savages. Now he, and we, and the women in the house, must live with it.

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