By BRUCE DENNILL
Fury / Directed by David Ayer / 16LV 8
American Sniper / Directed by Clint Eastwood / 16LV 7
The strength of a good war film is in finding the smaller stories within massive, history-altering conflicts and telling those effectively (an approach perhaps most famously espoused in Saving Private Ryan). Fury does an excellent job in that respect. The title of the film is also the name of the tank around which the bulk of the action centres and in which the story’s protagonists spend most of their time. Both the forced intimacy of that compact environment and the fact that such an environment is not often explored on film make this project stand apart from many other efforts set in similar historical contexts. Brad Pitt as an experienced tank commander nicknamed “Wardaddy” is the fulcrum of the piece, filling the roles of bullying superior, melancholic mentor, nerveless soldier and tragic hero at different parts of the narrative. The counterpoint to him is nervous rookie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who joins a team functioning more or less as a single organism and has to force his way in. Making mistakes, as he discovers, can be horrifically costly, and his development mirrors the heartbreaking arc of the overall story. In the midst of all the violence, there is also a sequence of quiet, lasting power as the Fury crew take shelter in a house where they are served by two local women. The situation reveals the best and worst of the men, and whether the impact of what they’re doing day in and day out is a valid excuse for their behaviour is a question with no simple answer. An excellent study of war and its effects on the psyche of those involves, with a terrifying sense of realism in many of the action scenes.
To some degree, there is more of the same in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which tightens the focus to a single soldier, Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL sniper who was credited with a record number of kills, amassed during four tours of Iraq. Kyle, as portrayed by Bradley Cooper, is a pleasingly complex character, never reduced to just an automaton with a rifle. He’s devoted to his country (the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam are driving factors in his enlisting with the Navy, and he is sent to Iraq after 9/11), his fellow soldiers (he balances his guilt about the live he takes against the lives he helps protect) and, in his way, to his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and kids. Trying to balance these priorities is an immense challenge for Kyle, and when he discovers, between tours, that he cannot adjust to a society that has become strangely unfamiliar, cracks begin to show in his psychological foundations. Like Born On The Fourth Of July, American Sniper is as much an anti-film polemic as it is a tribute to the sacrifice of those involved, and a sense of tragedy hangs heavy over most of the running time. The poor treatment of veterans – who may be superficially thanked and praised for their efforts, but who are most often damaged, misunderstood people who the state makes little or no effort to acknowledge or or counsel – is a major theme and one that is never resolved on screen. Perspective is everything: Kyle is nicknamed “Legend” for his exploits in Iraq, while his enemy equivalent, who must see his responsibilities in the same light as Kyle does, is called “The Butcher”. Presumably the roles are reversed from the antagonist’s viewpoint… Ultimately – more war equals more folly (however thrilling) and more heartbreak. Those who drive conflicts will always formulate opinions and hypotheses that support their desire to assert their authority, and the collateral damage will always be far beyond what even they deem “acceptable”. Kyle was, and is, regarded as a hero, but still there is not – cannot be – a happy ending. Despair at this state of affairs even as you appreciate the skills of this project’s filmmaker and lead actor.