Once again we find ourselves in some disagreement with the Academy regarding the best films of 2014. For example, one of the great war movies was released in 2014, and if you haven’t seen it you should. “Fury” (directed by David Ayer, “End of Watch,” “Training Day”) is the story of a tank and a crew who loved it. (If you don’t get this reference, you did not grow up the 60s.) The New Yorker says it’s almost equal to “Saving Private Ryan,” and we tend to agree.
Actually, it is one of Hollywood’s better efforts at capturing why soldiers fight and ordinary individuals are often willing to lay down their lives. It isn’t patriotism, it isn’t valor—it’s the bond of wartime comradeship. This isn’t a war movie in the John Ford sense, and it isn’t an anti-war movie (“Platoon,” etc.). It’s a rare attempt at merely telling the story of people at war without allegory to political cause or attempt at moral lecture.
This year will mark the seventieth anniversary of World War II’s conclusion. In those decades, our culture has vacillated between viewpoints on our role in the war: Sentimental remembrances of our family members who were “over there,” weighing the balance in the moral delta between waging industrial war and the crimes of the state that started it. Is it ever right to wage war? Does committing ourselves to the field of battle simply make us like our enemies? This film manages to capture these ideas while at the same time maintaining the necessary tropes of a story well told on film, which is altogether rare in Hollywood today.
Honesty About War’s Complexity Without Cynicism
The cast was well above average. Even Shia LeBeouf turns in a very credible performance as a morally conflicted gunner, who quotes the Bible and talks of Jesus one scene and kills with abandon the next. I’ve never seen a better, grittier performance from Brad Pitt. Pitt enthusiastically portrays one of the great strengths of America’s military—the non-commissioned officer. His character, Sergeant Don Collier, leads a typical, ethically mixed crew of misfits including a “FNG” (military speak for “funny new guy”—or something like that).
The presence of the untrained replacement who had been in the army for less than two months highlights the desperate state all of the belligerents found themselves in at the end. Even the vanquishing American army was critically low on manpower. The new guy doubts his courage, does not want to kill the enemy, and desperately wants to hang on to his other life, his old life. The film does a remarkable job in showing how in order to survive this total war, one had to embrace the ruthless cynicism that made the veterans so frightening. What good was left of them? To forego these changes meant certain death.
It is interesting in the backdrop of the current brouhaha over torture to measure the crowd reaction to atrocity-committing SS troops the crew encounters. They are not merciful and not exactly with the guidelines of the rules of war. This is another area in which the film succeeds. It eschews the traditional approach, where good guys only do good things and bad guys only do bad things, but it avoids moral equivalence by providing enough context to the scenes. These are men at their lowest, pushed to their extremes and exhausted physically and emotionally. The film creates empathy for the men in these situations, and the results are complex scenes that are both shocking and revolting but also understandable. The truth this, these things all happened, and pretending they either did not or were not as bad as we think does us no favors. In its honesty and clarity, “Fury” forces viewers to contemplate the inhumane behavior of everyone involved.
Realism Not Just in Emotions, But in Hardware
War movie purists like me appreciate the historic accuracy. One of the stars of the film is the world’s last functional Tiger tank. It was captured in the desert by the British in 1943. The actor portraying the commander of the Tiger is actually the film’s technical advisor, a 22-year British army veteran. The film’s sequence of a group of American M4’s (called Shermans by the British and most everyone else) taking on the Tiger, using swarm tactics to overpower the German monster, are based on actual WWII doctrine.
The film overall pays a great deal of attention to details. Bringing the actual machines to the screen instead of the traditional mock-ups or disappointingly common CGI additions adds a layer of reality to a film that puts viewers in the scene. There are lots of war movies, but very few tank movies. Humphrey Bogart’s “Sahara” (1943) and “The Beast” (1988) are the only other standouts that come to mind.
Warning, this is a visceral film. Although we would not describe it as gratuitous, its graphic depiction of the violence of a twentieth-century battlefield leaves little to the imagination. Another way this movie succeeds, and possibly the most welcome deviation from recent war movies, is the cinematography. Rejecting the commonly used “shaky cam” and filtered ground shots that have become the norm in action sequences, “Fury” takes a step back and shows you the whole scene. Viewers are still very much inside the action, but the camera doesn’t ignore the larger picture, which is vital for showing the scale and presence of the scene. It also removes narrative confusion from an action sequence, where something important might happen but gets glanced over in favor of the camera making things “realistic” with unstoppable vibrations.
Overall, “Fury” is possibly one of the best war movies we’ve seen, and one of the few to bluntly show the war and the people who fought in it.
Take a Look at Locke
“Locke” is another 2014 film the Academy snubbed this year. It is also a film you would never choose to see based on a thumbnail description, yet we believe it is one of the most powerful movies we’ve seen in quite a long time. One actor, one car, for one hour and 25 minutes. You won’t want to miss a single one of them.
Directed by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Dirty Pretty Things,”), the plot moves forward solely through a series of cell phone conversations Tom Hardy’s character, Ivan Locke, has as he speeds through the night on Britain’s equivalent of an interstate highway. Locke is facing a sudden, existential crisis. Think of the darkest thought of doom you might face, then cast yourself in a movie as you face it. That’s “Locke.”
It is difficult to describe this movie without giving away part of its charm. The sequence of discovering Locke’s current actions, the past actions that caused them, and what he plans to do in the future is pretty much the entire movie. The pacing in this film is almost perfect. For being set entirely on driving on a monotonous highway through the night, the context of Locke’s ceaseless phone conversations and his relentless effort to keep things in control give the film an incredible level of tension. For a movie where the only actor on screen never stands up, the uncertainty and suspense keeps you from relaxing.
“Locke” almost entirely disposes of Hollywood’s most common storytelling tropes. The effect this has is stunning. The story never gives itself away, and there is an incredible amount of uncertainty and anticipation from each scene. When the phone rings, which it does constantly, you’re thinking, “Well, now what?”
It also has to be said that the nature of Locke’s crisis isn’t very important. Again, without giving up the game, we’ll say that while desperate, in the grand scheme of things the events aren’t that thrilling. But this film makes you care—this man works a real job, in way that most movie goers can relate, which is something modern films often neglect. He has a family, coworkers, and a boss, all voices on a phone, but so much effort goes into painful details of a concrete pour you have to accept that it’s important. Locke cares about it, passionately, so you care about it. That’s one of the film’s greatest achievements,
If you’re still not convinced, be aware that crowd-sourced Rotten Tomatoes gives “Locke” a 91 percent rating. This is also an opportunity to witness the emergence of a new British film legend of the Hopkins-Cain level.