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October 17, 2014

War movies have long since moved beyond the black-and-white cheering for the good guys and into moral grey areas. Even the most gung-ho leave me questioning whether it truly is as sweet and fitting as Horace thought it was to die for one’s country. Fury
is, at least, one that seems to at least raise the question itself. What it comes up with as an answer, I don’t know.

There aren’t a lot of tank-based war movies out there. They were difficult to shoot realistically before the advent of modern CGI, and they haven’t seemed particularly relevant since. To the extent tanks still serve a purpose, they seem more like armored mobile heavy artillery than anything else, and a tank battle seems almost quaint in today’s airstrike-dominated battlefield.

But, holy crap, could a tank really dish it out back in World War II. If you’re looking for the maximum damage and destruction with a minimal cast, you can pick from tanks or bombers, and bomber squads aren’t on the ground to see the results after the fact. And so, on a technical level, Fury is almost certainly one of the most impressive military action films in years. It’s also one of the ugliest, and most disturbingly graphic. But does that make it good? I don’t know.

Most of us in the audience have no experience in the battlefield. I certainly don’t. Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is our surrogate: a typist even greener than his uniform, dropped into a Sherman tank in April of 1945 to replace the bow gunner who was the squad’s first casualty since North Africa. His first task is to clean the remains of his predecessor out of the tank. The body was removed, but there’s blood and tissue over the seat, and part of a face stares back from a nearby nook.

Writer/director David Ayer doubles down on the gore when Norman fails to shoot a German he sees in the woods. The tank in front of him gets hit by a rocket, and someone climbs out, engulfed in flames. He runs and screams for more than a few seconds before he can draw his sidearm and end his own suffering, all in front of Norman’s — in front of our — eyes.

I don’t describe this to disparage the film. Indeed The Thin Red Line — which film I will defend unreservedly — has no shortage of graphic violence itself. But you should ask yourself, do you really need to see a man shooting himself in the head while still burning alive to believe that war is horrifying?

The tank’s leader, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), takes it on himself to turn Norman into a Real Man who can and will slaughter every German he sees. And he’s right that, on the battlefield, that’s the difference between life and death not only for Norman, but for the rest of the tank’s crew (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal) as well.

Lerman portrays Norman’s arc from scared kid to shellshocked “war hero” admirably. By the end, he knows all too well what awful things men are capable of doing to each other, and I guess we’ve seen a few things ourselves. For this to play out in just a few days is unrealistic, but I have to admit that it’s kind of beside the point.

Also beside the point are the historical and technical inaccuracies a friend of mine leapt on right after the screening. Fury isn’t trying to chronicle the truth about tank combat so much as it wants to remind us of the humanity people have to sacrifice to become soldiers in wartime. The people who fight and die for us do all sorts of unconscionable things to stay alive, and it’s neither pretty nor glorious when they fail.

So, could a real Norman go from typist to war-machine in under a week? Could they find an organized SS battalion that hadn’t scattered in April 1945? Did tracer rounds really look like G.I. Joe laser fire, down to the red and blue color-coding? Do human bodies really do that when hit with high-powered machine-gun fire? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I don’t want anyone to know.

Does the fact that I found the military action depicted in Fury so profoundly disturbing to watch that I’m lying awake over the idea that anyone has to know what it’s really like mean that the film has accomplished its goals? Does that justify rendering these horrors so vividly? I don’t know.

Worth It: I’d err on the side of no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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