War Horse (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mr. Narracott (Peter Mullan) was supposed to buy a plow horse, but he ended up buying a thoroughbred foal. The idealistic son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), was ecstatic with this decision because he’d been admiring the young horse named Joey for quite some time, while the wife (Emily Watson) was very frustrated because they didn’t have enough funds to buy a horse, let alone one that didn’t know how to plow. The bond between Albert and Joey grew strong as they spent more time together. As World War I began, however, Joey had to be sold to maintain the family’s farm. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, “War Horse” was beautifully shot punctuated with occasionally moving moments of various characters’ interactions with the horse. From the mephitic yet refreshingly open spaces of the farm to the sordid claustrophobia and horrors in the trenches, the picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, was readily able to adopt a specific tone, whether it be through the use of color or the rate in which the camera moved, to convey emotions that specific characters, usually those who ended up caring for Joey at the time, were going through. While the separation of Albert and Joey drove the drama forward, I was most interested in realizing that each person who took care of Joey resembled a certain part of Albert. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), an English soldier, embodied pride, Gunther (David Kross), a German solider, symbolized selflessness, and Emilie (Celine Buckens), a young French girl, represented persistence and pluck. Since the screenplay gave the audience enough time to observe and invest on Albert and Joey’s relationship through playing, training, and riding, although the horse and his owner were later separated by circumstances for the majority of the film, their bond was always present. Interestingly, the middle portion was the movie’s biggest weakness. I wasn’t convinced that the execution was on the same level as the concept. While the exposition gave us plenty of time to absorb emotions and the implications behind them, the climb to the climax felt too rushed. When Joey moved from one potential new owner to another, I couldn’t help but think of several friends playing a game of catch. Whoever did not pay attention as the fast ball approached was out of the game, tantamount to the characters facing some sort of death. I wanted to learn more about Captain Nicholls’ fondness for Joey. He seemed to genuinely respect the animal, what it was capable of, and the value of Albert having to give up his beloved pet. Furthermore, Gunther’s relationship with his brother (Leonard Carow) felt superficial. I got the impression every scene was a mere set-up to something dark and tragic. While the bond between Emilie and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) slightly elevated the material, their scenes, too, felt hurried. Nevertheless, the climax was very moving. When Joey became hopelessly tangled in barbed wires in No Man’s Land, the land between the English and the Germans’ trenches, the opposing soldiers began to summon the horse and discovered an unexpected humanity despite the insanity that surrounded and threatened to destroy them. It was the scene that defined “War Horse” because it reminded us that although we may come from different backgrounds, speak in different tongues, and believe in different politics, the point was while many negative emotions may temporarily blind us, there is always a possibility of being able to co-exist, an idea strongly tied with Albert’s unyielding idealism.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Christopher Walken) decided to enlist in the Army to go to Vietnam and fight for American ideals. The film was divided into three sections: the innocence prior to the war, the three friends’ participation in the war, and how the characters viewed their hometown after they returned from war. Initially, I didn’t understand why the picture felt the need to focus on a wedding for a running time of about an hour. I felt as though it simply wanted to be an epic movie by being three hours long. But once our protagonists reached Vietnam and realized that going war for something they did not fully understand was their most critical misstep, the events that transpired during the wedding felt necessary. It served as a mirror so that, as active viewers, we were able to understand how deep certain friendships ran, the rivalry between Michael and Nick over the girl-next-door Linda (Meryl Streep), and, despite the guys having a strong connection to their Russian culture, they were true Americans and we should not blame them for wanting to, despite not fully weighing the pros and cons, defend our country for reasons they thought was right. As the film went on, it became more powerful because it had a solid grasp of tension, the suspense in terms of the picture’s imagery and the friction between the characters. In the middle portion, I felt an overwhelming sadness when Michael, Steven and Nick were captured and forced to play Russian roulette. The way they worked as a team to escape the Vietnamese was nail-biting because they knew, as well as we did, they were as good as dead if they continued to play by the rules. The scene in which the three of them sailed down the river using a dead tree was one of those images that would remain in my mind for a long time. Toward the end, I felt almost numb because the men who managed to come back to their hometown, although more complex because they were more experienced, felt almost hollow because they could not relate to the people around them. There were classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder but I admired the fact that it was shown in sublte way. Another image that I was able to extract myriads meaning from was when Michael chose not to shoot a deer when he had a chance. To me, Michael saw the animal as a symbol for freedom–something that he felt was out of his reach (and will always be out of his reach) even though he was, arguably, able to return home as a whole. Directed by Michael Cimino, “The Deer Hunter” is an atypical war picture because it focused more on the personal struggles instead of the horror of being surrounded by flying bullets and explosions. It argued that returning home could feel just as dangerous as standing alone in the battlefield.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I could immediately relate to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) because he saw the good in people above all else. His idealism was challenged when he was appointed by Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his father’s, to fill a recent vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith looked up to Paine but was not aware of the fact that Paine was controlled by a powerful media figure named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Despite the rotting corruption in Congress, it seemed as though nothing could destroy Smith’s loyalty to his country and ideals. I was so happy to have seen this film on the 4th of July because it had a truly touching scene about what it meant to have freedom. I’m referring to the scene when Smith talked to his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur) about the concept of liberty being buried in books and people taking it for granted and not realizing how lucky they are to have it. I have to admit I teared up a bit because it described how I was in high school. Despite our class talking about important U.S. historical figures and how the government worked, I found it really difficult to connect with the material because it all felt too impersonal. Watching Smith running around the capital while completely enthralled with all the monuments and the history of the place, it inspired me to always look the world from a fresh perspective. Stewart and Arthur made a killer duo because despite the two being completely different in how they saw politics, they found a commonality and worked from there to establish a very strong bond. I was touched with the way Arthur eventually revealed her softer, sensitive side without losing what made me adore her character in the first place: her sharp wit, dry sense of humor and sarcasm. Some viewers say that the picture might be a bit too romantic but that’s exactly what I loved about it. While it did acknowledge that there was an ever-growing darkness in the world and sometimes the good guys might not necessarily win, the movie’s main purpose was to instill hope. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well as it did if the lead character didn’t completely wear his heart on his sleeve. I was also impressed with the way it framed corruption by means of a politician’s silence which culminated toward the end of the film. Based on the screenplay by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was astute, touching and, most importantly, still relevant today. It went beyond liberalism and conservatism. Its main focus was what it meant to be a true American.