Fury: a more effective anti-war drama than Saving Private Ryan?

Virtually every online blog I have read makes a reference to Saving Private Ryan while reviewing David Ayer’s Brad Pitt starrer Fury. A couple of reviews have gone so far as to call it as good as or better than the Spielberg Oscar-winner. There’s no escaping the influence of Saving Private Ryan on the look and feel of this film – right from the realistic production design to the dynamic between the world-weary team leader and the fresh-faced young soldier. But Fury is an edgier, rawer film than Spielberg would ever have been comfortable making. Nevertheless, it is just what one would expect from the man who wrote Training Day (2001), directed the acclaimed cop drama End of Watch (2012) and ultra-violent action-thriller Sabotage (2014). After years of writing (The Fast and the Furious and SWAT) and directing (the little-seen Harsh Times and Street Kings) contemporary cop-and-gangster movies set in LA, this is his first real foray into a different genre, but he brings a lot of the same gritty aesthetic from those earlier films to this WW2 setting.

To begin with, I loved the casting – Pitt’s tank crew consists of Michael Pena (who was Jake Gyllenhaal’s partner in End of Watch), Shia LeBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Logan Lerman (who played the title character in the two Percy Jackson movies) as the typist who is suddenly shoehorned into becoming a tank machine-gunner. Each of the actors has a distinctive face and personality; and this in itself provides a certain depth to the characters which could perhaps not be expressed in any other way, given the constraints of the script and setting. Of course, David Ayer cannot be called subtle, so right up front, it becomes fairly obvious that Lerman’s character is the only one who is going to come out of this war alive. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by a key scene that takes place in the middle of the film, when the troops have just taken a German town and are engaging in a bit of R&R. This scene serves more than one purpose; it provides a breather for the audience between two battle sequences, with some moments of tenderness and humanity. But more importantly, it creates an unexpected bit of tension among this closely knit band of brothers, with all sorts of emotions on display – guilt, anger, anguish, betrayal – and just as quickly, the next call of battle arrives and it’s time to put the emotions away and get on with the business of killing.

The cinematography by Russian Roman Vasyanov, who also shot Ayer’s End of Watch (with a very different style) is a real treat. The tank battle in the open field and the climactic defense of the crossroads in the night are both spectacular, with the tracer rounds looking light energy bolts fired from X-Wings in Star Wars. At the same time, a couple of key moments in between (Pitt brutally makes a man out of the new recruit and the R&R scene in the German town) are also shot very effectively, the close framing of the characters fully capturing the emotions of the moment.

I marveled also at the production design – the mud, the military equipment, the uniforms, the mud, the inside of the tank with the little personal touches, the blood, the facial scars on Brad Pitt and Jason Isaacs, the mud…everything feels hyper-real. Inside the tank, one gets a real sense of the claustrophobia that we also saw in U-571, a WW2 screenplay Ayer co-wrote in 2000. Meanwhile, there are also some unreal, but stylistic touches like the cool haircuts everyone has and Brad Pitt’s permanently gelled hair look!

This film is unlikely to receive any Oscar nominations, because of course the Academy would never nominate any film so raw/ edgy/ explicit, unless it was directed by Martin Scorsese.

Unlike Tom Hanks and his men in Saving Private Ryan, the crew of Fury do not die in the noble task of bringing one young man home alive to his distraught mother. Instead they die in the defense of a crossroad in the middle of nowhere in a war which they know they are going to win in a few days. In both cases, the deaths really make no sense at all and that I suppose, is the point that both these films were trying to make. But unburdened by Spielberg’s sentimentality, I think Fury drives the point home more effectively.

PS: Keep your eyes out for a small role by Clint Eastwood’s lookalike son Scott.

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