**1/2 (out of ****)
Arguing about Steven Spielberg, either his recent movies or his entire oeuvre, has become something of a national past time for pop culture nerds. His influence on how the industry works today is inarguable, but the quality of his films is, and probably always will be, a hot topic. Of course, there’s always the people who will think that it’s cool to bash the beloved, those calf fuckers as we call them here at PopFilter, but I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about critics and film fans who have grown up and re-watched Spielberg’s old films, and they just don’t work as well as they used to.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not, never have been, and never will be one of those people. Sure, it’s easier for me to see the strings being pulled in some of Spielberg’s more manipulative moments, but that doesn’t mean they make me any less happy. If I watch Close Encounters or Jurassic Park today, and a moment seems a little hamfisted, I can at least immediately transport back to when I saw it the first time and remember exactly how I felt then, which is to say nothing of Jaws or ET, which are essentially perfect movies. That transportation is a powerful thing, something that the kids who grow up with the Transformer films won’t have.
As defensive as I can get about Spielberg, I’m not an apologist. In fact, as much as I love his great stuff, his terrible stuff pains me much more than it should. His misses (Always, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Amis…actually there’s kind of a bunch) actually make me physically ill, maybe because all of his missteps are so glaring to me, or maybe because I can’t shake the feeling that we wasted a Spielberg movie. War Horse, which comes out on DVD and Blu Ray today, doesn’t belong in the Crystal Skull camp – it never made me physically ill, but I still have a little feeling that we kinda wasted a Spielberg movie.
There’s apparently a booming genre in the literature world, a world that needs more things to boom, that caters to something called tweens. These tweens love to read, and there is a legion of “authors” that have books ready for them. They might not be that deep, but they have everything these kids need from their entertainment, and, maybe more importantly, they are just for them. They are the only ones this shit appeals to, and I think they like that part about it. War Horse is based on a children’s book, but it’s a weird sort of tween movie. It doesn’t have a similar story to things like The Hunger Games or Twilight, but it does rest in that same valley that those books do, where it’s too adult for children and too childish for adults. (Just for the record, I’ve never read any of those books, so I’m not passing judgment on them. I’m just making a point. Bear with me here. I’m sure The Hunger Games is wonderful.) Having that niche of an audience can be fine for books, but it’s dangerous for movies, and can blow up in their face. Having Speilberg direct is a great way to hedge your bets, and that’s when it occurred to me that he has been doing this for most of his career, it’s just that he used to be good at it.
Many of Spielberg’s greatest movies, at least the big blockbusters, appeal to all ages, but not in the way most All Ages movies do. All Ages means that this movie is for kids, and adults will have to sit through them. But a great Spielberg movie can actually be enjoyed by all ages, something that we now only get from Pixar and the Police Academy series. It’s more than that though. Kids stop appreciating Spielberg movies as children’s movies and begin appreciating them just as movies. You begin to learn what makes movies great. On one hand, sure, Spielberg can be manipulative, but on the other hand, his greatest movies are clinics that fulfill everything you want, if not need, from a movie. He might not be Bergman, but he is that first step into appreciating films of the past, and more importantly that first step into realizing that the other crap you like is just that – crap. We’ll use Raiders as a quick example. On the surface, Raiders is perfect popcorn entertainment. Go a little deeper than that, and it’s the perfect adventure movie, creating the standard for everything that came after that, by blending every genre in the exact right away. Go a little deeper than that, and it’s a film history lesson, pulling from films from essentially every decade before that. If you grow up with a movie like Raiders, it continues to reveal itself with each viewing. It doesn’t say a ton about the human condition, sure, but that’s OK. Movies can be deep even though they made a shit ton of money and don’t reveal a lot about you. We’ll call it American Deep. Spielberg perfected, if not created, American Deep. War Horse, however, has all of that stuff contained only on the surface. It never pushes you to a new level of appreciation. It’s American Shallow, and we can get that from any other movie, directed by Spielberg or not.
War Horse tells the story of a horse who wanders around a war, meeting new people and seeing cool things. Every time he starts to get used to his surroundings, something will happen to his owner (usually death), and he will be forced to move on to someone else. I know what you’re thinking, that this sounds like Robert Bresson’s 1966 film Au Hasard Balthazar, and now I’m thinking that you’re a pretentious asshole trying to prove how much you know. Seriously, calm down Frasier. But Balthazar does use its animal main character to break down the human condition, and depress the shit out of us in the process. That can’t happen in a Spielberg movie, so what we’re left with is a series of almost random episodes that have no connection except for a main character that we can pseudo-root for, but not really attach ourselves to. Like most episodic films, some of the vignettes work more than others, but for the most part, none of them last long enough to develop while they all last long enough to become boring. All of this leads to the last vignette, in which War Horse gets caught in some barbed wire, a segment that is pretty touching, but by this point we’ve been through so much, and the point of the segment is so obvi, that you find yourself now pseudo-rooting for the barbed wire.
The throwback to old films is all here, but it never feels like an homage, or a subtle lesson in film history, as the great Spielberg movies have before. This feels like Spielberg wanted to make a movie in a certain way, in this case he clearly wanted to make a John Ford film, and then did it for no other reason than that. He just felt like it. You could call it experimental, but that term comes with a notion of risk or originality, which this film certainly does not have.
I’m looking at this movie like it’s an average Spielberg movie, but the more positive spin is that this is a bad movie that Spielberg Spielberged all over until he was able to bring it up to average. I think that is a definite possibility, and it’s easy to imagine what this would have been like if it was directed by a more treacly director-for-hire. Spielberg’s schmaltz is still there, and it always will be, but it least it’s schmaltz with style. I don’t think Spielberg is done making truly great movie, but if I had to guess, they will be more along the lines of Munich or Schindler’s List, as opposed to ET or Raiders. He still knows how to be good, and he still knows how to be fun, it’s just becoming evident that he forgot how to do both at the same time.
THE DOUBLE HOUR
WE BOUGHT A ZOO