Technically, Fury is a movie about an American tank crew that's trying to survive the last big push into Germany during the waning days of World War Two. More practically, however, it's a film about how beautiful ugliness can be. Fury is an unceasing parade of physical and emotional brutalities - it's exclusively devoted to illustrating what men will do when they have the hungry desperation of the nearly vanquished or the casual cruelty of an entitled conqueror. But there's something empty about the way it tries to manipulate the audience, because all of it is shot with an eye towards a specific type of sentimentality. It seems to be saying: yes, this is terrible, but this is the sort of stuff that turns men into Men, and isn't that great?
The best way I can describe Fury is to call it a tourist brochure for tortured masculinity. The story is told from the perspective of a young man named Norman who was trained to be a typist but was then re-routed into being a tank gunner when the army ran short of warm bodies. At the start of the movie Norman is a corn-fed American with the potential to be a great soldier, but he is also naive, untested and unprepared. The other men in the tank put him through a crash course in every way that they can - hazing him until he submits to their authority, forcing him to murder enemy soldiers against his will, and regaling him with long monologues of the nightmares they have endured in battle. They are one side of the chasm of manhood and Norman is on the other side and they are telling him that it is time to cross the bridge. Fury is implicitly imploring us to do the same.
In some ways I wanted to accept Fury's idea of masculinity - it did feel appropriate to the time period it's depicting. In other ways I wanted to reject it, because the constant emphasis on manliness often felt heavy handed, as if this film was a thesis statement in addition to being an action flick. The man calling the shots in the tank goes by Wardaddy, and there's a reason why he has that nickname: he is meant to embody all the traits that an ideal old school dad would embody. He is uncompromising against other soldiers, but he has moral restraint against civilians; he is unemotional in front of his men but you know that he has regrets buried deep down in his heart; he is stoic and square jawed and unafraid to tackle the big tasks. I don't have a problem calling Wardaddy a man's man, but I do bristle at the idea of him being the ideal man. He has a certain type of nobility to him, but he's not someone I would ever want to be like.
Most of my qualms about Fury are due to the fact that this film is stuck in-between eras. In many ways, it is very modern: there are earnest depictions of deaths and rapes that would never have been allowed fifty years ago. But it's ethos is straight from the era it's depicting. The film pays some lip service to the idea that war is full of gray areas by suggesting that most of these men are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder but overall it has a black and white world view where sacrificing yourself is noble and where suffering is a path to redemption. This is not a film that is very curious about the damage that's being left behind - the only Germans we meet in the course of the whole film are clearly traumatized, but the camera doesn't linger on them, and once they disappear from sight they are never to be spoken of again. (Which is not a completely wrong call; there's no reason for us to linger on a character after they have died.) Fury offers no suggestion that for many of the people who were affected by the war the ugliness was just ugly.
Which is ultimately why the film's ethos didn't sit well with me: it's artistic enough to acknowledge that war is complicated, but it's also crass enough to endorse war's cruelty. Fury could not have been set during Vietnam because our feelings about that war are too complicated for this film's moral to make sense. No, Fury had to be set during World War Two because we've accepted the necessity of that war, and as such, we are far more willing to accept extreme actions from the soldiers who are fighting it. We can see these men turn into monsters but still think of them as men. I don't want to get too deep into the weeds on this point - after all, I'm well aware that there's a difference between depiction and endorsement and that it's not a war movie's job to argue the moral case for the war it's interpreting - but I will say this: I would have been a lot more comfortable during Fury if I hadn't been regularly reminded of John Prine's song "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" and it's chorus "Jesus don't like killing / no matter what the reason for."
Fury is an effective bit of filmmaking in many ways. It's violence is often powerful. When it stops for a monologue it makes sure that it is well delivered. It's fast-then-slow-then-fast rhythm does a nice job of imitating the mixture of calamity and quiet that you would expect from a battle and it's aftermath. But it is also a hollow mess. It lacks the clarity of a classic World War Two film, which were so pro-war that they bordered on propaganda and it lacks the honesty of a lot of modern war movies which like to depict tragic events as if they were actually tragic. It's easy to believe that soldiers are heroes when you can't see them cursing, raping or murdering - but once you've decided to illustrate the blunt realities of war that sort of myth is harder to buy into. I don't know that our culture has reconciled the contrast between the occasional necessity of war and the constant savagery of soldiering, but I do know that films like Fury aren't helping us figure it out. You can tell me that ugliness is beautiful, but you can't make me believe that isn't a contradiction in terms.