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Has there been any other modern tank movies?

Fury, good as it is anyway, will be the tank movie for a long time to come. There are plenty of war movies featuring and emphasizing aspects of specific battles, specific war material, or specific ideas. Fury is for tanks what Saving Private Ryan was for Normandy. It is also one of the only war movies I can remember that is both about war and also avoids condescending instruction in war movie tropes like camaraderie, wickedness, and costs inherent to war. In other words, Fury treats you like you’ve seen a fucking war movie before.

It’s hard to imagine how awesome that is until you realize just how common movies pat you on the head and spend way too much time rehashing the same “band of brothers” or “war is hell” cliches as if it’s your first time. It’s not like Fury isn’t about those things, it’s just presented the ideas to you in a more honest, more raw and visceral way. In a sense, it’s left to you to pick up those threads in the duality of the characters (who are fittingly both good and bad men) and the horrific things they see and do.

David Ayer (writing and directing) has made many films about the collision between virtue and corruption in men. His films walk a fine line in portraying a familiar, heroic masculinity that is often a double-edged sword. His characters in Fury are treated as both heroes and scoundrels during the course of the film, but above all else they’re always human. The confident storytelling and rousing score (one of the best of the year) go together with the novelty (don’t underestimate this) of the focus on tank battles and tactics to create a great, great film.Shia-LaBeouf-Jon-Bernthal-Michael-Pena-and-Logan-Lerman-in-Fury-2014

One of the film’s extractions from history is the tendency for untrained personnel to be assigned to dangerous, skill-dependent roles.

Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is a clerk assigned to a gunnery position with a tank crew that’s been together longer than most. Their chief is Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), a tough motherfucker who saunters around with the utmost confidence only to dump loads of concentrated feelings when his crew can’t see it. He’s the quintessential military leader, the kind of guy we’ve seen a hundred times and whose one rule is always to be the glue that holds everybody together, always appearing like he knows what to do even when he doesn’t. Brad Pitt is at the top of his game in the role, making you understand exactly how all his guys can both love and hate him.

Norman hasn’t been in the war long enough to have the same burnt out eyes, gallows humor, or cruel streak as his new comrades. They are each varying degrees of rephrensible, with the possible exception of Bible (Shia LaBeouf), a soft-spoken Christian whose worst crime seems to be staggering hypocrisy. The joker of the team is Gordo (Micheal Pena) while its resident asshole is degenerate redneck Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal). Coon-Ass is maybe the most insufferable character in the movie, but Bernthal is fucking electric in the role. The movie carefully grows the audience (and Norman’s) suffering of his antics until finally, a quiet moment of contrition that sells what Ayer is doing with this movie better than maybe any other scene in the movie. In any other movie, Norman would finally reach his limit and kick the shit out of Coon-Ass, but Fury never goes there.

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Maybe the most awkward dinner scene in any war movie.

In spite of his cruel attempts to ready Norman for combat, Wardaddy takes a fatherly shine to him or something. The only clue about what he’s feeling is in the complexity of Pitt’s expression when he looks at Norman and his other men. The way they interact often feels, purposefully, like you’re walking into the middle of something. They refer to people and places and events that the film never fully engages, and they do it with a range of emotion from pain to hate to love.

Possibly the greatest scene in the film doesn’t even take place in a tank, but in the loft of a German woman where she and her cousin try to survive the last desperate days of the war. Wardaddy invades their house, with Norman along for the ride, and treats them with kindness and regard rather than the cruelty we expect. There’s so much tension before Wardaddy plays his hand, and the movie has taught you to half-believe he’s just going to rape the women and call it war. But he doesn’t, though sex is part of the picture. Instead, the scene is about taking a moment to try and recreate the kind of experience you might have if the war weren’t even happening. And it seems nice, if fucked up, until the crew comes barging in to lay their pain at Wardaddy’s feet. The complexity doesn’t end with the obscurity of their stories and feelings, but transfers into Norman as he becomes the butt of some of those feelings. No one comes out and says, for example, that they’re all jealous of Norman (though Coon-Ass comes close via “Oh it’s Norman day is it?”), but it’s there like an infection.

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena

There’s a layer of grit on everything in this movie, but the color palette helps it to never feel forced or self-conscious.

By the time the crew makes their final stand against a battalion of Germans, Norman (and the audience) is 100% with these guys. There’s some lingering question about the morality of anything that makes people into this, but that question remains unsettled. Honestly, who is David Ayer to try and tell an audience what war is really all about anyway? So he doesn’t try. He just shows us the corruption of war rectified, not in a grandiose sense, but on the level of five brave men doing one brave thing and dying for it.

The only reason this works without the sentimentality and jingoism of, say, Saving Private Ryan, is because we get to see these men laid bare. Rarely does a movie about manly men, let alone a war movie, let them show much feeling. Maybe a lone tear, maybe a manly embrace or handshake, but never anything as raw and fucking heartbreaking as what we see in Fury. Especially in Bible, who is the open wound of the movie. LaBeouf makes good on all the nice things directors and fellow actors have always said about his talent and work ethic, which few people outside Hollywood really ever believed.

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Gordo is pretty much solely responsible for the few moments of levity in the film.

Fury is a movie full of questionable acts done by questionable men. That may be a good definition of war, even, and it could very well be Ayer’s way of looking at it (and things like policework or crime as well). As often as you’re rooting for these heroic members of the “greatest generation”, Ayer is deconstructing that into a dull sense of dread and trepidation as he shows them doing and saying things that are uncomfortable at the very least. This is how Fury respects the audience, never talking down to them or trying to make them swallow rose-tinted, nostalgic bullshit about a mud and guts-soaked past.

War movies almost always deal with heroism as an ideal, whether by saying “yes, here are heroes and here is the heroism of war so let’s feel good about this” or saying “there are no heroes in war, you idiots”. Fury is the only movie I can think of that says both, that makes an argument for where you can really find the heroism, and why it’s ultimately meaningful only on the narrowest of planes and never in the grandiose way it is so often presented.

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