The Second World War has become something of the default setting for war movies, to the point that we get at least a few every single year. Every new World War II trailer sparks some level of eye roll: not this shit again. Thousands of years of history, uncounted millions dead, every cause and ideology under the sun fought and died for, and we still circle back to the same four years. And probably three-fourths of the time it’s the same nine months in the same sector of a worldwide conflagration with the same country’s troops: just Americans fighting Germans for less than a year, that’s all we really care about.
I’d be willing to wager that if you counted up all the actors who have played American soldiers on the Western front in the last seventy years, including all the extras and such, the number would probably be damned close to the actual number of Americans who served in that time and place.
But I think that reaction, while it has had a lot of goods words spilled over our own particular myopias of history, our own obsession with a small group of our own ancestors, misses a generality. World War Two is no longer a time, no longer a place. It’s a genre and setting in and of itself. It’s Star Wars or Star Trek or Lord of the Rings, but set in our own past. It’s a world where we already know all the details and know all the rules. When you don’t have that, you have to establish them. But when you do have it, you can move on to telling universal stories without having to set the table for the story. And so the vast majority of World War II films are not actually World War II stories. Despite dozens of films set in that war over the last decade, I don’t know that there’s been a one of them that can truly be classified as a World War II story. They are universal stories that have been set in the shared universe with which we’re all already familiar.
And so we pick up Fury, a story set in World War II, but not of it, per se. It is the best war story that I’ve seen in quite some time.
It is a tense and brutal movie, made all the more so by the brief respites of seeming normality that are nonetheless interrupted at constant intervals by bits and pieces of almost surreality. The battle scenes are harrowing, but there’s a tight focus to them that makes them more immediate, a zooming in on a few men frantically trying to survive. It’s a film that doesn’t tell but shows, with scene after scene of dialogue that’s functional, not narrative.
It trusts the audience, rarely says what it’s thinking, and lets the characters act and lets you draw the conclusions of what they’re feeling and why they’re doing the things they’re doing without filling in the blanks for you.
And that works because the acting is phenomenal. Brad Pitt brings his usual talent, here portraying a man so hard he’s brittle, but caring in darkly hard ways for his men. Logan Lerman and Michael Pena carry their own, but it’s Shia LeBeouf and Jon Bernthal who carry the movie. Look, we’re all aware that LeBeouf is bizarre and usually a complete idiot to boot off the screen, but on it? He just brings to life a character here, just a complex and real person who can’t be summed up in a quick sentence. The same with Bernthal. This is the sort of work actors should get awards for.
All the characters are like that, even the ones with only a scene or two. They’re asked by the director to portray something, to evince a full personality with only a few lines and glances. It’s the sort of movie that if I knew anything about acting at all would probably be a revelation, a clinic put on by a dozen or so who just fully inhabit and project a reality.
The visuals of the film are simply staggering. The vicious violence of course, but more. A white horse riding slowly through mud. A corpse ground into the tank treads so many times that it’s hardly more than clothes and mud. The German civilians hung by their own soldiers. The German children in baggy uniforms dead and still clutching weapons. The sight of hundreds of bombers and their contrails seen from the ground, the roar still deafening. An entire city burning on the horizon. The terrifying power of shells screaming like lightning, caroming into the sky after brutal strikes against metal. This is a movie that shows total industrial war for what it is: something far larger than men, so powerful it grinds them into dust as an afterthought.
It’s easy to make a movie that’s either black or white, and a bit harder to make one that’s all moral gray areas. But Fury is that rarest and most difficult sort. The sort that’s all blacks and whites and grays at once, none of them melding into another. There’s evil, there’s good, there’s a muddle between, but they are still distinct things, and that’s what makes the film so genuine and real. The darkness and the light stand side-by-side, not gray, but distinct if you look closely enough, like impressionist dots painting a picture of war.