Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) hasn’t been trained to kill people. In his own words, “I was trained to type 60 words per minute.” He is a recently enlisted army typist who joins a four-member crew headed by the U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Dan Collier (Brad Pitt). Ellison’s an assistant driver by designation, but he knows, as everyone else does, that when you are on the battlefield, you don’t have a designation: You are either killing someone else or you are rescuing yourself from being killed.
As the Allied forces keep moving into Nazi-controlled Germany, annihilating anything and everything that comes in their way — foot soldiers, battle tanks, dilapidated buildings — Ellison can do nothing but look around dazed, unable to fathom the scale of destruction, and the horrendous possibility that he might soon be party to this carnage. He’s also frequently disconcerted by his fellow soldiers’ complete apathy; they celebrate their killings with unabated glee.
And soon, the inevitable creeps up on Ellison: He’s ordered to kill a captive German soldier. His fingers slip over the trigger — he can’t kill the soldier; he doesn’t want to. This little scene is crucial in understanding Fury and, consequently, what really happens to soldiers’ humanity in the war. Here, Ellison has seen the soldier not only beg for his life, but also for the life of his wife and daughter. He sees a human being down on his knees; his crew members see a Nazi. And it’s this crucial difference — between seeing your enemy not as “who” he is, but “what” he is — that convinces soldiers to kill with gleeful, sadistic abandon. It’s difficult to kill a human being, for he comes with his assorted complexities, but it’s much easier to destroy an ideology — or tag — because it’s largely bereft of a grey area: you either see it as right or wrong, acceptable or appalling, pleasant or venomous. Eventually, Collier cups his hands over Ellison’s and forces him to pull the trigger. Ellison is distraught; Collier is relieved. The rest of his fellow soldiers break into a silly laugh.
It’s in these scenes, where Ellison is continuously guarding his humanity, that David Ayer, Fury‘s director, appears most assured, constantly probing how easy is it for humans to become inhuman. It’s as if Fury is asking us all the time: So what really is the difference between a terrorist and a soldier? It’s up to you to find your own answers in the film, but a certain reading of the film gives out the following explanation: A terrorist possibly kills for himself — or for the warped ideology of a select few — while a soldier kills for his country. A soldier is a pawn in the larger scheme of things: he, much like his enemy, is held hostage to politics, which leaves him largely unaffected, that coerces him to be a murderer, and murder he must.
Fury, at least superficially, is not about the futilities of war. Ayer doesn’t want to take the easy and trite way out. Similarly, Ellison is not a picture of grace, and his crew members are not war-hardened misanthropes. As we come to know later, each one of them has had a blood-curdling history with war. A ravaged — and by that account, abnormal — past seldom lends itself to a normal present. The film hints that maybe Ellison’s crew members were once as innocent as he his right now. Their humanity is not as dead as it is latent. Fury soars in scenes like these. And although the film’s sporadically formulaic — Ellison’s inevitable transformation; the film’s climax; the chain of deaths in Collier’s crew (as it so happens, the least important actor in the narrative gets bumped off first) — these bits don’t rob the film of its searing poignancy.
And when Ellison transforms into a bloodthirsty soldier, he frequently shouts, “F**king Nazis” as he embarks on his rampage. Later, he confides in Collier about his first voluntary brush with violence, “The fact is I kinda liked it.” His transformation is complete: he’s finally begun to see his enemies as a bunch of tags.
An edited version of this review was published at The Sunday Guardian