Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Blaze of Glory

Yesterday's film was writer / director David Ayer's current effort, Fury.

Set in the waning days of the European chapter of World War 2, Fury follows a tank crew led by Staff Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) as they make their way across Germany. The film begins with an explanation that our Sherman tanks were known to be inferior to the German Tigers, making for hazardous duty for the crews of this equipment. The story does not concern itself with the larger war nor with any well-known epic battles; rather, we are shown what day-to-day life was like for a small band of men who must work together if they are to survive, and whose survival is the chip placed on the table again and again, day after day. This is their job. "Best job I ever had," they say, only half in jest (since it is a comment that always follows a successful emergence from another battle).

The story is really told through the eyes of new recruit Pvt. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who in a nightmarish turn has been plucked from his job as a typist and deposited in the Assistant Driver's seat of the Sherman. This is much to the rest of the crew's chagrin, as his inexperience and frank unsuitability for the job--he has never set foot in a tank before--makes for an increased hazard for a crew which is already well past its expiration date. He arrives in camp having no idea whatsoever to expect, and gets a very quick introduction when he is tasked with removing the splattered remains of his forbear from the seat he is shortly to occupy. Collier's crew have survived through a combination of dumb luck and the capability of the men--and through Collier's very adept leadership (we are left wondering at such talent and ability confined to the insular world of the six-man crew, this world being but one unit like a grain of sand in the desert of an immense undertaking where life and death become statistics around which the larger effort must be planned). Though we do not witness any of the great battles of history, dead is dead at every encounter if things don't come out right. I daresay it's easy for we civilian folks to forget that.

All the film's performances are excellent, with Pitt especially wearing the swagger and bravado and nonchalance his crew expects (and perhaps needs) while privately showing the immense strain of the choices with which he has been faced--and the decisions he has made. The men are distinctive personalities, and the actors do a great job of dragging their characters' baggage along, each character trying to play his role while having to conquer fear and to almost continually face death--theirs or someone else's.

I suspect Ayer's mission is to place the grim reality of war starkly before us: whatever a person's preferences and philosophies, a soldier's most basic job is to kill enemy soldiers. This simple calculus becomes inescapable for a soldier, especially if his opposite number is frantically aware of it. But the decisions facing a soldier are rarely cut-and-dried, and the deadly nature of the activity means there's little chance for deliberation and second chances. The razor's edge by which a long-standing crew such as Sgt. Collier's has managed to stay alive means that the men, if they live, come out the other side with very bloody hands and little opportunity to wonder luxuriously if they've made the right choices. Nasty, brutish, and short.

As a collection of characters, the film is excellent. The plot is linear and believable; the pictures are horrific and beautiful, and the tension runs like a piano string throughout. We are given a lot to think about. But I wasn't unreservedly enthusiastic. First, I always have a bad taste in my mouth when the "chaotic battle aftermath"--the opening scene of the film--is depicted by a field littered with debris and burning indiscriminately. Why would there be a bunch of little, uniform fires of basically equal size? Why would clumps of dirt be burning? A burning tank, sure. A demolished house on fire, you bet. A burning dead horse maybe? OK, sure. But just random chunks of metal? Metal don't burn, dude. And the music: There are a couple affecting themes presented to us, but overall I found the swelling patriotic music to be A Bridge Too Far. In general I hate soundtracks clumsily telling us what we're supposed to feel; it seems the most basic failure of storytelling.  But the Big Battle Scene suddenly slowing down to an artistic slow-mo and all sound dropping away while we are treated to swelling angst music--ugh. I know Fury is not trying to be a documentary, but if we're trying to understand what the soldiers experienced, I can guarantee that things didn't slow down beautifully and get accompanied by Musical Deepity.

Chalk that up to my quirks and don't let it stop you from going if you otherwise like war films. As a friend said, it's not Saving Private Ryan, but it's not bad.

Grade: B


dbackdad said...

We're planning on seeing this one. For once, this was a movie that my wife actually suggested we see. From your review, it looks like it would be worth the time.

More immediately, I'm seeing Gone Girl and Interstellar this weekend. I'm purposely writing on this post as opposed to your Interstellar one so as not to influence my viewing. It looks like you have a nice long review, so I'm looking forward to diving in as soon as I'm done seeing it.

William Stachour said...

I'm wanting to see Gone Girl maybe this week when I'm home. Nice to see some good, substantial films at the theaters after a slow summer.