Sunday, February 19, 2012

War Horse, or "Animals Being Harmed, the Movie"

It’s Oscar season, which is time to reflect upon the movies - good, bad, and horrible - that have come and gone in the year that’s past. There are many surprising gems nominated for best picture, and there are some giant, festering turds, too, and too many snubs to count. It’s the way of the Oscars - beautiful, bedazzled, severely retarded award show that she is.

It’s only in measuring up my favourite and most loathed movies of the year that I’ve come to an odd realization - War Horse, Project Nim, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes are all kind of the same story in different forms, despite one of them being a badass blockbuster, one been an art-house documentary, and one a terrible Spielbergian schmaltz-bucket. (In case those adjectives were unclear: War Horse is a bad movie. Don’t see War Horse.)

Each movie has an animal in the starring role. Each animal is used and traded by various humans for their own gains, and while there are good, caring humans, and there are bad, callous humans, they’re all cogs in an unsympathetic system that cares not for the animal’s fate. We see the animals abused, neglected, scared, and horribly alone. And only in one movie do we get to see that animal plot his revenge and wage war against his oppressors, humanity, giving us a cathartic victory instead of gnawing void.

Spielberg has made a long career out of taking heartbreakingly sad events in history and making them unbearable sentimental and three hours long. It’s cheesy, and it’s unnecessary, and it’s our own damned fault, because we keep giving him awards.

Schindler’s list was a good movie, sure, but did Liam Neeson sobbing “I could have saved one more...and...I didn’t!” (a scene which has no historical origins) really enhance our understanding of the Holocaust, or his character?  And do we really need a chained African man in an early American courtroom shouting, “Give us us free!” over and over again, while the orchestral music swells, in order to get that slavery is wrong? And don’t we already all know that World War One was terrible, pointless, and wrong, and even have a universally acclaimed movie to illustrate the point? Can’t you leave that one alone, Spielberg?

These are all rhetorical questions, I guess, because All Quiet on the Western Front still exists, but so does War Horse.

It’s World War I, told through the eyes of a helpless animal in the most cliched way possible, so that Spielberg can teach us all that the Great War was sad and innocent people died and got hurt for no good reason. Which we already knew. Thanks.

And despite it’s unabashed corniness and deliberately sentimental plot, I cried.

Why? Because the damned horse watches his best friend die in front of him, in the mud, having been worked to death hauling artillery to the front lines, and our titular horse tried to save him but couldn’t, and now watches him die and then looks on with giant horse eyes clearly portraying a sadness and grief which can never be properly explained or understood, because there is no explanation for why, or how, this all happened, or how the world could ever right itself again...and I’m not made of stone, people. It’s sad.

...And then, moments later, the horse gets spooked by a bomb, then a tank, and runs, panicky, into the front lines, where he gets hopelessly tangled in barbed wire. And then it’s not so much sad as cruel, to the animal and the audience, and I feel more pissed off than sad. Because the movie is clunky, and manipulative, and despite its aesthetic beauty (it really does have nice cinematography), it left me feeling abused.

So abused, in fact, that I couldn’t properly put my emotions into words. So I made up a picture, instead.

This is what comes of watching War Horse.