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Army staff sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt) is a hardened war vet and commander of the US 2nd Armored Division M4 Sherman tank Easy Eight, nicknamed ‘Fury’. His last assistant driver/gunner was killed in action and he’s now assigned a rookie soldier trained as a clerk typist, as a replacement. Private Norman “Machine” Ellison (Logan Lerman) is a young, fresh-faced kid with no battle or tank experience, which, as Wardaddy learns while moving his tank farther into Germany, becomes a major liability as the kid’s hesitation under fire causes the death of Fury’s tank platoon leader. Then, during a lengthy and deadly battle with German anti-tank guns, Ellison hesitates again.
Wardaddy grows impatient and angered by the soldier’s lack of discipline and support for the tank. When the battle is over, the platoon captures an enemy soldier and has him kneel in the mud while a few dozen men surround him. Wardaddy hustles Ellison to the prisoner and orders him to kill him but the young soldier screams, “I can’t do it,” shaking with fear and frustration. Wardaddy only becomes more incensed, and physically harangues his gunner, ordering him to take his unholstered pistol and shoot the German, who is pleading with fear. Ellison begs his commander to stop, to let him go, and at one point, for Wardaddy to kill him instead, but it falls on deaf ears. Wardaddy grabs the timid soldier and forces him on the ground and jams the pistol into his hand, wrapping his own fingers around Ellison’s. He then taunts the boy to do it. Do it, Norman. He fires.
Written and directed by David Ayer, this character-driven movie is a gripping, unrelentingly realistic look at combat and courage in a war that has seen a lot movies tackle its history. The story of a tank team is one not often told, and Ayer paints a harrowing, often hard to watch experience that trembles with tension. That said, the rookie-learns-the-hard way is nothing new in cinema, especially war movies, from Platoon to Saving Private Ryan, and like in those films, Ellison is ill-equipped and unprepared for what combat is really about. Wardaddy, a nickname that comes to represent precisely what the name implies for Ellison, is not desensitized by death, despite his constant exposure to it, rather he is keenly aware of it and the impact each death has. He recognizes a harsh truth about death in war. It is inescapable and with only two possible outcomes: You kill or you die.
Breaking it down to these baser facts makes Wardaddy viciously effective in his job. By only accepting war as these two black & white outcomes, it allows him to function with focused precision. This is the unspoken meaning behind the team’s ‘Best job I ever had’ mantra because of course it isn’t but by accepting these two truths, they commit, even if it’s the scariest thing they’ve faced in their lives. This is the truth Ellison needs to learn, that no matter the complexities of what he thinks war is, it comes down to two men with the same goal. This crucial moment illustrates that not just to the young Private but to the audience as well. On either end of every shot fired is just one man trying to kill another. And if you’re going to be in it, then that is the harsh reality you must live and die by.
“Why are you here?” Wardaddy asks of Ellison. The answer is simple. Wardaddy seems brutal and horrifically demonstrative, even ethically unjustified, but he can’t afford a tank team member who doesn’t know the answer. What’s interesting and telling about the scene is the flank of men surrounding the two. They are dirty, exhausted, learned, and accepting. They know the lesson Wardaddy is teaching and you’ll notice none chastise or belittle Ellison like frat boys in a hazing party. No, they stand in dead silence. These are soldiers and every single one of them learned that “I can’t” becomes “I must” in order to survive.
Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman