Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Ideals Are Peaceful. History Is Violent"

Reel To Reel: Fury

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf
Rated: R (but should be NC-17)
Red Flags: Graphic and intense war violence and language with as many f-bombs as real bombs. Not for the squeamish or faint of conscience. For mature audiences.

While watching Fury, I thought back to the problems United Artists executives handled during the development of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, as chronicled in Stephen Bach's book Final Cut. Bach described the film's scripts as "brutally depressing and depressingly brutal" and "violent and profane" making it a "serious commercial gamble." Eventually UA made that film -- now considered a classic -- because it goaded the production into framing its protagonist as something more than a "cockroach." I wonder if a similar dynamic took place during Fury's production, with studio heads demanding the picture evolve beyond a two-hour reminder that war is hell.

Fury largely exists to erase what latent gutsy warmth we had from World War II pictures like The Longest Day and The Guns Of Navarone. The movie finishes off a process begun by Saving Private Ryan. In fact, it borrows a key plot element: a rookie soldier who has never seen active combat lumped in with the battle-scarred veterans. This time around, the rookie is Norman (Logan Lerman), a typist suddenly assigned to replace the assistant driver of a tank named "Fury." The crew is led by Sgt. "Wardaddy," (Pitt) whose tough exterior hides his shell-shocked soul. "Bible" (LaBeouf) quotes verses and kills krauts. "Gordo" (Michael Peña) and Grady (Jon Bernthal) pretty much do the same with fewer verses. Everybody curses. A lot.

The movie opens in 1945, as the desperate Nazis throw everything they can into defending their homeland against the advancing Allies, whose tank forces are outgunned against superior German machines. The war will end, but everyone knows it will not end quietly. Wardaddy and company get orders to come to the aid of forces trapped by the Axis or at risk of getting cut off, against long odds and heavy fire. Along the way, they also have to make a soldier out of Norman. He is naive to the horrors of war, and his humanity keeps him from shooting Hitler Youth, potentially endangering an entire tank platoon.

Norman is an intensely sympathetic character juxtaposed against unlikeable heroes, although they remind us they are doing a necessarily evil job of exterminating Nazis. That the crew occasionally do so in ways of questionable morality isn't supposed to matter to us in the long run because the victory is what matters and what people remember. Still, the picture takes a breather to allow some display of conscience, when Wardaddy and Norman share a polite breakfast with a German woman and her daughter only to see it disintegrate into boorishness when the rest of the tank crew barges in. Ultimately, we come to the compulsory Big Battle At The End, where the Fury's crew must take a crucial stand.

Saving Private Ryan had a soul and a patriotic vibe. Fury has guts, grit, grime, GOD, and some semblance of conscience amid watery ethics. But will it go down as a Great War Movie in the vein of Apocalypse Now, whose DNA it shares? Audiences will answer that question. I will tell you intensity and greatness are two different beasts.

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