Saturday, October 25, 2014


Alternate Title:  The Crucible

One sentence synopsis:  A young typist is drafted as a replacement tank crewman, and joins a veteran crew during the bloody, bitter end of World War 2.

Things Havoc liked: War movies are their own genre with their own rules, and over the years I've seen spectacular ones (Das Boot, Platoon, Lawrence of Arabia), and terrible ones (The Thin Red Line, Pearl Harbor, War Horse). One of the things I've noticed though, something which makes me nervous every time a new War film is in the offering, is that while there's a wide gulf of quality between an excellent war film and a terrible one, most war films look more or less identical when reduced to thirty-second trailers. As my policy in selecting films is to consult neither other reviews nor industry buzz, this poses something of a problem, as the trailers are the only things I have to go on besides my own intuition to make the selection. And to be perfectly frank, insofar as it's possible to differentiate one war movie from another via trailers, Fury's were not encouraging, being comprised of nothing but the usual "rookie joins the war and becomes a man while winning the respect of his comrades in the crucible of war" jargon that is more or less the plot of two thirds of all war movies ever made. As a result of all this, I very nearly decided to skip Fury entirely, figuring that the film had nothing new to show me beyond a tired, cliche-ridden plot, and it was only a lack of viable choices (Dracula Untold was the best of my alternate options) that led me to reluctantly see what this film had to offer.

Well I was right. Fury does have a tired, cliche-ridden plot. And it is awesome.

Let me be clear, I do not mean the film is awesome in the sense of something like the Expendables, I use the term in its strict, literal definition, in that Fury, contrary to all my expectations walking in, is a thing which produces awe. It is a shattering, stylized, tremendously well-made film, acted, directed, shot, and scored beautifully, one of the finest renditions of the "rookie joins the war" plot I have ever seen, and a well-deserved reminder that one should not judge a film by its one-paragraph synopsis. Writer/Director David Ayer, a veteran of cop films such as Training Day, Dark Blue, and one of my bigger surprises from 2012, End of Watch, has outdone himself, producing a war film that deserves to be remembered in conjunction with the finer examples of the genre, and doing so with a throwaway plot, questionable actors, and a subject (the mechanical art of driving and commanding tanks) that does not lend itself well to screen. Tanks, of course, are imposing, highly-cinematic objects. Five men crammed inside a metal box peering through peepholes for two hours are generally not. But then this film is anything but general.

It is the end of World War Two, and fanatical die-hard holdouts from the German Volksturm (People's militia) and SS (Irredeemable shitheads) fight hopelessly on against the all-conquering tide of Allied might and steel now blanketing Germany. In the midst of the savage fights that end the war, Sgt. "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) commands the five-man crew of his M4A3E8 Sherman medium tank, "Fury". I've always regarded Brad Pitt as a very good actor when he's not playing a sardonic pretty boy (at age 50, he can still manage to do as much), but this is not his first war film, and with an exception or two (last year's World War Z for instance), the results have been pretty dismal (Troy, Inglorious Basterds). Here however, he is anything but, a consummate, professional non-com, veteran for so long that he no longer even needs vocalize what he's thinking about the war or his circumstances. When he stands at a depot and is ordered to do foolish things by a fresh-faced Lieutenant, he does not curse his luck in being saddled with a fool, but simply rolls his eyes, for this is war, and stupidity is something he has long-since gotten used to. And yet the war has hardened him as well, the mechanical act of waging brutal warfare for this long having convinced him that men must be blooded in order to survive at all. Willing to kill helpless prisoners in full view of thousands of men and yet equally willing to reprimand his men for a misplaced insult, his dual nature manifests in a lengthy sequence midway through the movie where he and his rookie assistant driver (who we'll get to) enter the apartment of two young German women, the results of which we spend nearly half an hour building towards, unsure if he's going to rape them, shoot them, ask them to make him some eggs, or some combination of the three.

And sharing our confusion is Private Norman Ellison, played by Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson to you YA fans out there), a young man I've been highly impressed with in everything from 3:10 to Yuma to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to Noah, one of the strangest movies I saw this year, wherein he was very good playing Noah's rebellious middle son. He's better here. Eschewing the usual "young kid who must earn respect from his fellows" tropes that these sorts of movies are well supplied with, Lerman instead plays his character like a sane person dropped without warning (having been trained as a typist before being sent to the front by a paperwork snafu) into some kind of Dantean hell. The war he is plunged into is brutal beyond comprehension, and he reacts as anyone might, with disbelief, undisguised horror, blind panic, and pure, adrenaline-fueled rage. The semi-reflexive attempts by his new crewmen to denigrate his inexperience and to force him into the necessarily brutal mindset of the war itself he regards, not as terrible trials to be overcome, but rank insanity, screaming that no amount of forced atrocity will "make him a man" and instantly responding to the customary threats ("shoot the prisoner or I shoot you") that those issuing the threats should shoot him. It helps Lerman's case that the crew of dispassionate war veterans around him are all excellent as well, particularly End of Watch's Michael Pena, and most astonishing of all, none other than Transformers and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's Shia LeBeouf, an actor I assumed I would never have any use for in any context whatsoever, and who in this film might actually be the best actor in the entire thing! His character, like the others, is not that new (a bible-spouting born-again Christian), but the weariness with which he plays the character, and the casual manner in which he and the others bounce off one another is staggeringly good, done as real as any portrayal of these sorts of classical archetypes that I've ever encountered.

But it's the style of the film, particularly the cinematography and the score, that really push this movie over the top. We're all used to exciting battle sequences in drab olive-and-brown ruins, but never before have the ruins of Europe been this dreary, nor the battle sequences this awe-striking. Tanks deploy tracer rounds of a thousand technicolors, lighting up the sky like electrical storms, lustily eradicating everything in their path with clouds of incandescent white phosphorous or eruptions of volcanic shellfire. Anti-tank shells and machine gun bullets streak past like the colorful lasers from a Star Wars movie, ricocheting in all directions in clouds of sparks or violently ripping armored vehicles apart like volcanic eruptions. A particularly memorable shot involves the contrails of thousands of barely-visible high-altitude bombers, silhouetted against the leaden skies, carpeting the vault of the heavens in formation like a phalanx of angels as a handful of ragged German warplanes rise to offer futile battle. The footage of war in this film is horrible, bloody stuff, and yet it is gorgeous, even memorizing, a reaction made even stronger by an ethereal electro-choral score from veteran composer Steven Price, whose work last year on Gravity I praised immoderately, and must again here. Eschewing all traditional war movie themes, the military marches, the pattering drums, or the customary orchestral stings, Price gives us a score that sounds like the electrified version of a Baroque Requiem or Fugue, an accompaniment not for Band of Brothers, but for the Last Judgment. The entire effect borders on the very edge of magical realism, as if the combatants were locked in some kind of purgatorial hell, doomed to fight a bitter, bloody war until all the seas run dry.

Things Havoc disliked:  Staggering as the style of this film is, there were moments when my rational brain, and more particularly my historical brain began coughing and asking pointed questions. One of these comes early on, when Pitt's character "inducts" Lerman's into the brotherhood of misery and brutality by physically forcing him to commit a war crime. That American troops committed war crimes in WWII I accept, of course, but this one is committed in full view of hundreds and hundreds of witnesses, and involves action-by-proxy that can only be understood in the context of Pitt being a literal psychopath, ala Tom Berenger in Platoon, yet the movie soon makes it abundantly clear that he is nothing of the sort. Why then this grotesque display of sociopathy, one so absurd that I can safely say nothing of the sort ever took place in the US army during the war? Perhaps the intention is to signal the duality of Pitt's character, but there is, I'm afraid, a difference between duality and multiple personalities.

There is also the question of the battles. Though they are, in the main, scrupulously accurate (the best involves a fight between a squadron of Sherman tanks and a fearsome German Tiger I, portrayed in the film by the only functioning Tiger left in the world, and resolved approximately the way a battle between a Tiger and four Shermans would probably go), the film's final engagement seems to drop all pretense of realism in favor of pure spectacle. I don't mind pure spectacle at all, especially when it's done this well, but this is a historical war film, or at least it has been masquerading as one. For the movie to suddenly turn into a mook fight at the end is rather disappointing, as the enemies our heroes face are so absolutely overwhelming that, well-disposed towards the film as I was, and knowledgeable about the war as I am, I was absolutely unable to construct a rationale for why any of them remained alive for more than about forty seconds, given the situation they were in and the enemies they were faced with, nor was I able to construct one for where the Germans managed to derive this massive, well-trained, and dangerously lethal force mere weeks before the final collapse of the Third Reich, at a time when the US Army was overrunning Germany at flanking speed, and the Air Force despairing over having literally run out of targets in the entire country. Perhaps I simply am too close to the source material here, but my ability to sit back and admire the final sequence was hamstrung by this problem, to the point where it cheapened most of the actions, heroic and otherwise, that the characters were going through. It does not make you seem heroic if you appear to have an invulnerability cheat code on, or if your enemies appear to be monolithically stupid.

Final thoughts:   Fury is a wonderful film, a brilliantly-acted, stylish, gorgeous war epic, which neither glamorizes the war, nor wallows unnecessarily in the horrors of it (which is not the same thing as not wallowing in them at all). Indeed, such criticisms as I have seem almost unfair in retrospect, as I'm not certain the intention wasn't more artistic than accurate, that Ayer did not seek to make a film that encompassed the platonic essence of war, using World War Two as its medium. Some scenes may stretch credulity, even within their own context, but it is still one of the most complete war movies I've seen in a decade, a lustrous achievement that I am very glad I had the opportunity to see.

My track record of late has not been the best one, and last week I nervously wondered if there was any way out of the mire of crappy movies that I seemed to be stuck in. How fitting that in the middle of Oscar season, typically a time for tense dramas and soulful biopics, I found salvation in a movie about the beauty and horror that comes when fifty-ton war machines battle one another with flaming darts and blossoming shells.

Oh and it turns out that Shia LeBeouf can act. Who would have ever guessed?

Final Score:  8/10

Next Week:   Michael Keaton plays a superhero and goes crazy.  No, you have not seen this before.

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