Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
In Fury’s opening scene, Brad Pitt stabs a German officer in the eye. This act of brutality makes two important statements about David Ayer’s new film. First, Fury isn’t for the squeamish—those uncomfortable with such displays of brutality should probably sit this one out. Second, Fury won’t be a glossy, glorified homage to the “greatest generation”. It’s a film unafraid to revel in the muddiness of war, both religiously and psychologically. Yet, it’s this courage to live in ambiguity, paired with a strong narrative and decisive cast, that makes Fury one of the best war movies in years.
As Christians, this is the line we must walk, between justice and mercy, sacrifice and preservation.Brad Pitt plays Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a battle-worn sergeant who commands a Sherman tank and her crew during the closing months of World War II. The tank—dubbed “Fury”— houses his team, but it’s the men inside (played by Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, and Shia LaBeouf) who make it a home. They are the quintessential family. They argue, fight, and, consequently, always seem to have each other’s backs.
After their assistant driver is killed, Collier reluctantly replaces him with a young army staffer named Norman (Logan Lerman). Norman’s a pencil-pusher, a clerk who types sixty words a minute, but has never stepped foot on the battlefield. Thrown into combat, Norman must slowly transition from naive recruit to experienced killing machine.
His story, in some sense, is an archetype for a larger study of both Fury’s crew and war as a whole. As a film, Fury is less about battle per se and more about how battle consumes its participants. It’s a story about those who are swallowed up in the throbbing mass of human violence. It’s about how war can take innocent men and turn them into killers.
The film takes “Fury,” a visual bulwark for the brute impersonal nature of war, and opens up the metal box to let us see the men inside. In Fury, battle is more than a life-size chess board of sorts; it’s a collection of very real individual and cooperate stories, transcending a simple us-versus-them philosophy.
Through Norman’s eyes we witness the psyche of innocence in the face of moral ambiguity. In a war of attrition, what actions are morally justified? The question becomes even more turbulent when Collier, sensing Norman’s reluctance to kill, forces him to shoot an unarmed German soldier. The scene is as tense as it is harrowing. At another point, the American troops liberate a small town, only to pillage and terrorize those inside. Some Germans are taken prisoner while others receive mob justice for their sins.
But just when Fury seems to be teetering toward an antiwar sentiment, it slowly shifts in the other direction. The film makes a case for war (at least this war) truly being a necessary evil. Collier understands this predicament. “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” he says. As depraved as they can be, Fury’s crew does seem to be playing a crucial role in effecting justice on a larger scale. Fury neither deifies nor demonizes the Allies. It finds its balance somewhere in between the fetish of war and idealistic pacifism.
Collier himself seems to be an embodiment of this moral ambiguity. Rather than gravitating toward either military commander-esque clichés or melancholy blandness, Pitt commands the screen just as well as he commands his troops—and that fashionable haircut. He sells Collier’s conflicting ideals. He’s a man who is merciless in front of his team, yet breaks down when no one is watching. He’s weary of God, but quotes scripture like a parish priest.
If Collier’s opinions about the divine are reluctant and cold, he’s offset by Shia LaBeouf’s Boyd “Bible” Swan. LaBeouf, interestingly enough, plays the perceived moral center of the crew. When he’s not directing tank rounds, Swan is found reading his Bible while the other soldiers drink and loot. He seems convinced he’s doing the Lord’s work, even quoting the famous, “Here I am. Send me!” passage from Isaiah 6. Yet, he refrains from commenting on the eternal state of anyone’s soul—including Hitler’s. While Collier’s experiences in battle lead him to wonder whether God has left mankind to their own devices, Swan believes the team has not only divine approval, but also miraculous protection—even as other men around them fall by the dozens.
Both characters reflect our common religious and psychological ideas about war. Theodicy either rips away our belief or compels us to take on the mantle of divine retribution and protection. Where is the line? Fury fights for a middle ground, choosing to live somewhere in the uncertainty.
Technically speaking, Fury is a well-crafted film. Except for a middle sequence that sags a bit, the story moves along at a quick pace. The battle sequences, emphasizing the duality of war, are a horrifyingly beautiful mixture of bloody realism and pronounced tenseness.
Fury finds its greatness, however, in not being afraid to live within the moral messiness of battle. There are tyrants and leaders who must be toppled. There are good guys, and there are bad guys—though these titles aren’t always as clear as they were during World War II. Yet the battlefield itself, the workings of each individual, is much grayer. Within those overarching categories are those on either side who display both virtue and depravity—sometimes simultaneously. My hope is that audiences will leave the theater appreciating our soldiers all the more, realizing just how nuanced war can be.
Through Norman, we find a soul torn between innocence and the reality of combat. At once, viewers root for him to kill Nazis and cringe when he comes to revel in it. Partly because we see how we ourselves could revel in it too.
As Christians, this is the line we must walk, between justice and mercy, sacrifice and preservation. For, it’s in the Bible that we read: “When the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness” (Proverbs 11:10) and “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).
In the fury and cold metal of war, this is the balance we should desperately seek to find. Though it’s tempting only to see the impersonal tank, we can’t forget about the individuals inside.
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