Thoughts on War Horse

When the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, I had only one thought.

Please don’t nominate War Horse for best picture.

This was 100% a selfish wish. Every year, I try to see all the best picture nominees. This has become more of a challenge in recent years with the expansion of the category and then the rule change for 2012 that there could be anywhere from five to ten nominees. But this year the problem wasn’t the increased uncertainty in the number of films.

I just really, really didn’t want to watch War Horse.

Sometimes, there is a movie that comes along that seems to be custom designed for you and your preferences. This year, that movie for me was Moneyball. It combined two of my favorite things (baseball and Brad Pitt), was co-written by Aaron Sorkin (whose work I respect and enjoy) and was based on a book I had already read and liked.

And sometimes a movie comes along that has all the elements that you don’t like in a movie. It doesn’t mean it is necessarily a bad movie, but it just not going to do it for you. And I could tell just from the commercials that War Horse was going to be that movie for me. It had a number of factors going against it:

  • Steven Spielberg directed it. Spielberg is perhaps the most commercially successful director of all time. He’s been behind some huge blockbusters. But while there are some exceptions (E.T. when I was a kid, Schindler’s List, Minority Report), I generally find his films lacking. They tend to be too safe, too conservative and too sentimental. He relies on emotional moments that feel forced and that aren’t necessarily earned through his storytelling. His movies just tend to run a little too old-fashioned for my tastes. I lost a lot of respect for him when he went back and digitally edited the guns out of E.T. and I honestly think his involvement in Super 8 kept that movie from being truly great. He tends too much toward whitewashing the world. He is, in a word, schmaltzy. My tastes run much edgier; my favorite director is Quentin Tarantino, who is pretty much the antithesis of Spielberg.
  • It’s a war movie. For some reason, movies about war, especially those that are pretty sweeping in scope, do absolutely nothing for me. I’ve tried. I keep watching them hoping I’ll find one that holds my interest, but I always come up empty. I’m possibly the only person who didn’t really like Saving Private Ryan. I sat through the miniseries The Pacific last year and just did not enjoy it except for the episodes that were more removed from the war. I don’t know if I find them confusing with all the chaos of battles or if I find a general lack of character development that makes me not as invested in the characters. Maybe the horrors and drama of war are is something I just can’t connect with. One thing I know is that the issue isn’t the violence; I watch a lot of other types of movies with violence and that doesn’t faze me at all. Unfortunately, Spielberg loves war movies (he directed Saving Private Ryan and was executive producer on The Pacific), which is yet another reason we are probably not destined to be good friends.
  • It’s about a horse. This is probably what will surprise most people, but I don’t consider myself an animal person. I like animals just fine, but I don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time with them or watching a movie about them. You aren’t going to find me at a zoo on weekends, nor do I stop in pet stores to look at the adorable animals. They do their thing and I’ll do mine. My relationship with animals has become more complicated now that I am a pet owner. I’ve noticed, somewhat to my surprise, that since I’ve become “mom” to Pumpkin the cat, I have a really hard time seeing animals in pain. Of course, I didn’t enjoy that before I got a pet, but now I find myself getting upset much more easily. What I used to be able to see as a routine plot point, like a horse being put down in True Grit, now means I’m going to tear up and possible cry. I can’t even sit through the Sarah Mclachlan commercials about animal cruelty. So the idea of a movie where a horse goes to war, and presumably gets injured and/or mistreated, had high potential for me turning into a blubbering idiot. And I don’t like being a blubbering idiot.
  • The movie is almost two and a half hours long. This isn’t a problem in and of itself. But when you already think you are going to have zero interest in the film a run time of over two hours does not sweeten the deal.

But I am a completest. I wasn’t going to not watch the film and abandon my project just because I had reservations about it. I managed to get my hands on a screener of the film, so I didn’t have to drag myself to the theater to see it. This was crucial since this then gave me the option of stopping and taking a break if I got bored. The commitment of sitting in the theater was proving to be a major hurdle to me seeing the film.

I’d love to say that I was pleasantly surprised by War Horse and that all my preconceived notions went out the window. But they didn’t. I tried to go into it with an open mind, but the things I feared would be an issue were in fact so. I stopped the movie a few times and found myself playing “Word with Friends” on my cell phone throughout. It just didn’t hold my attention and would have benefited from a more aggressive editor. John Williams’ score sounded identical to all his other scores. I found the plot drawn out and a little ridiculous.  It was a chore to watch.

If you are a fan of Spielberg’s movies, you may enjoy this one more than I did. It wasn’t a terrible; it just wasn’t for me.