The Good Machine of the Last Good War

The marriage of man and machine is a classic trope, and Fury takes it to the next level by bonding multiple men with the ultimate war machine of the Second World War. The result is a complex and original film about the familial bond between soldiers. Brad Pitt is Wardaddy, the hardened veteran commander of his M4A3E8 Sherman tank named Fury and the father figure of his tank crew family. The film’s formal introduction to the gang is through trained typist and new recruit Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), reassigned to be Fury’s assistant driver and bow gunner. He meets gunner “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), driver “Gordo” (Michael Peña), and loader “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal) after Wardaddy reluctantly but good-humoredly accepts Norman into his command.

Nothing is really original about Norman’s predictable transformation from trigger-shy newbie to hard-nosed soldier except for how suddenly and violently the change happens. It’s not a shortcoming of the film, however; sad as it may be, audiences these days have become so desensitized to onscreen atrocities of war that drawing out this horrific process to witness its full effect is no longer necessary. A few poignant scenes effectively demonstrate how morality is merely an impediment to military effectiveness. Coon-Ass coins Norman’s nickname, Machine, as complimenting his newfound ability to pull the trigger, yet the real irony is lost upon the men. Director David Ayer doesn’t miss it however—his unobtrusive yet lingering camerawork downplays the drama of these events, refusing to focus on any one person or action but mechanically taking in the sights. It is a sharp contrast to the positive light in which the crew sees its Machine and its tank. A dying soldier is afforded the same attention as the surrounding foliage; the lack of humanity keeps the war in perspective and makes the film all the more harrowing.

Indeed, Ayer trusts his actors to do most of the work. Apart from the eerie orchestral score which nicely maintains tension when there is no action onscreen, Ayer’s approach is cleanly minimal. When the crew is on the move their natural camaraderie is epitomized by simple yet meaningful and sometimes moving conversations about nothing. Characters are developed through isolated shots of their facial reactions and body language. The effect is subtle and real. We get to know the veteran crew by observing the little details, by watching everybody go about their regular business just like Norman does as he slowly warms up in their presence.

Certain shots linger almost too long, depicting the tenderness between hard men so intimately and intensely that it results in an interesting homoerotic vibe. While there is a fine line between passionate brotherhood and subtle homosexuality, Bible and Wardaddy seem to blur it at times. Bible is seen tending to Wardaddy’s arm wound and deliberately slows down so he can do it gently. They then lock eyes for a long stare before Bible rests his head on Wardaddy’s arm. Perhaps LaBeouf overacted his brotherly bond, but then again these intimacies and intensities add depth to the already richly complex filial relationship between Bible and Wardaddy.

It is regrettable then that the action scenes are so bombastic, overdoing WWII tank warfare. Ostensibly Fury pays homage to the once ultimate war machine quickly fading into a relic, but Ayer cheapens the sentiment by catering to modern action sensibilities. There are too many shots of Bible yelling “on the way” (standard tank protocol) when he fires the cannon or mows Germans down, both of which undermine the elegance of the rest of the film. Tracer rounds are supposed to be every five bullets but in Fury  they look like Star Wars with red Allied rounds and green German rounds flying everywhere. The slow destructive majesty of the tank is lost; instead, we get plenty of movement and rapid-fire action, making this tribute feel cheap.

The overdramatized climax also feels unnecessary given that the film is more interested in characters and their relationships rather than bad-guy blasting. Ayer seems suddenly to remember what his film is about when ending the ordeal with a wonderfully pensive scene that ties the film’s questions about humanity together. The brilliance of the character development throughout the film makes us realizes the crew is just like any real family, complete with bouts of jealousy and occasional hate. And at the end of the day, they are united by an indescribable bond that manifests itself not through words but through actions.

This is why we admire Fury’s protagonists as everyday heroes. Unfortunately, Ayer himself seems unconvinced, instead striving to portray the men as larger-than-life action heroes as well.  In succumbing to blockbuster clichés, he squanders what is otherwise a refreshing take on soldierly love.

Grade: B

A refreshing examination of wartime brotherhood in a unique setting that for some reason also wants to be a bombastic action film about tank warfare.