REVIEW: War Horse

11 01 2012

One of the best compliments I can give “War Horse” is that it feels like Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump,” just following a smart horse instead of a dumb man.  Both films are among the best cinematic examples of cinematic historical fiction, showing the way things were through unique perspectives that make us rethink how we ourselves see them.  They extoll the power of one good, pure-hearted soul to intertwine us all into a common destiny – and then throw in beautiful landscapes, gorgeous sunsets, and a poignant score by maestro John Williams.

By now, you’ve probably heard all the main talking points on this movie.  Detractors decry it for being all schmaltz and sentimentality, as if they were so far below Spielberg.  Fans love it for its warmth and touching narrative, as if Spielberg had lost his mojo since “Schindler’s List.”  Basically, they just found different ways to react to same thing: this is a movie designed to tug on your heartstrings in thinly-veiled manipulation using old-time technique and sensibility.

You can choose to either judge this movie on principle or on execution; I choose the latter as the movie is unapologetically and unabashedly what it is, and that’s totally fine with me.  Where it becomes an issue, though, is when it falls just short of the lofty expectations it sets for itself.  Granted, it’s a little unfair to judge Steven Spielberg against his own work, which contains many of the modern masterpieces of our time, but it lacks both the visceral and the emotional intensity of his previous films that “War Horse” can’t help but harken back to.

Don’t let the title fool you; this is a two-and-a-half hour movie about a horse with war merely a backdrop.  (Less than ten minutes of the film actually feature combat, so don’t come in expecting “Saving Private Ryan.”)  Yet while it has little to do with war itself, it has everything do with the humanity at stake in tense situations such as war.  The movie affirms perhaps the quintessential Spielbergian value: no matter when two sides spar, we are all tied together by a common thread of dignity and caring.  In these moments, what we need to do is communicate.  Often times, we don’t realize that this is what we need to solve our problems – something else has to remind us.  In “War Horse,” that something is Joey, the horse who must embark on a journey that would make Odysseus cower.

He begins befriending teenaged Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a bond that proves to be durable in that way only possible in the real of cinema.  While Joey may save the family farm, he still gets sold to the British military at the outset of the Great War for additional income.  Joey sees it all, from the Allies to the Central Powers, hope for a quick resolution to disillusionment at its entrenched stalemate, passing from human to human and inspiring soul-searching and sparking discussion.  He changes the lives of everyone he meets, though not always for the better, all the while maintaing a firm resolve to return home to Albert.

Spielberg crafts a film where the horse doesn’t merely provide the spark for a human journey but is actually a character in his own right.  He has complex emotions, not just expressions of primal needs like eating, and it’s remarkable how the direction can make us feel them without ever making Joey feel like a ridiculous cartoon or implausibly magical.  Whether it’s E.T. or Joey, Spielberg sure does know how to bring out our most human qualities by showing them in something else.

And how interesting that Joey also speaks to a very 2011/2012 theme, both in cinemas and in America: out with the old, in with the new is a rather demoralizing philosophy.  In World War I, the old cavalry charge was being replaced with the tanks and gas weapons, which looked like a way to ensure a swifter, more efficient victory.  However, as history tells us and Spielberg shows us, this was not the case; it merely made it possible to kill more people while making even more minimal gains.  The lush greens and gorgeous countrysides of the first act in 1914 make the gray, muddy no-mans-land in 1918 all the more depressing and affecting at the end of the film.

Perhaps the most frightening scene in the film is when Joey is trapped between a wall of barbed wire and an encroaching iron tank.  In Hollywood, it’s 3D, motion capture, shooting digital, and video game culture pushing filmmakers and auteurs back towards obsolescence.  In American culture as a whole, it’s Facebook, email, and the overall digitalization of life pinning us against a fate of unbearable obliviousness.  Yet when Joey leaps over the tank and begins a mad dash towards safety, it’s an empowering moment as we all hope that the old can survive against the pernicious onslaught of the new.

Yet “War Horse,” for some reason, never packs the emotional punch equivalent to its wide lens and sweeping storyline.  It comes sappy and sweet, sure, but it feels disproportionate in power to the rest of the film.  Much can be attributed to the script, which falls into some hackneyed traps for obvious emotional goading.  When Spielberg cues up his music, shows the fecundity of the English fields, and sends Joey galloping across the screen, you can sense him asking or begging you to feel – an offer you can refuse.  But even if you choose to stonewall his requests, or simply fail to be moved on the scope he intends, the incredible Spielberg bravura will still stun and awe on a very high level.  B+ / 

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6 responses

12 01 2012
CMrok93

Great review Marshall. Without a doubt, this is Spielberg trying his hardest to manipulate the hell out of his audience but it somehow works and brought me into the story despite some of the very corny moments.

13 01 2012
impassionedcinema

I’m not sure that I should’ve been laughing, but when they meet in the middle of battle to free the horse from the barbwire, that was too much. Only in the movies would that horse ever get back to that kid. I thought the two best encounters Joey has is with the grandfather and his granddaughter, as well as, Tom Hiddleston. There was some worry that Hiddleston’s character would be cruel to the horse, but it was great that he was a good guy. Good review Marshall.

14 01 2012
Marshall

I’ll agree with you there – when that scene began, I rolled my eyes a little and muttered, “Really?” But knowing Spielberg and his remarkable ability to craft a saccharine reality, it didn’t surprise me – so I just sat back, enjoyed, and paid attention to what the scene might illuminate about the rest of the movie.

13 01 2012
3guys1movie

Nice review Marshall, your much more diplomatic than we were. I liked the premise but I can’t help holding Spielberg to a higher standard. If he cut the ham fisted syrup drama in half I probably would have enjoyed this film a lot more.

14 01 2012
Matt Stewart

Spielberg is one of the best, we all know that, so I find it really hard to believe this is as bad as some people are saying. Still, the trailer wasn’t too engaging! Haha.

Good review Marshall!

14 01 2012
Marshall

I think people piled on the criticism BECAUSE it was Spielberg. If some random director emerged onto the scene with this, I bet there would be more praise. But alas, Spielberg did direct this and everything else is just a hypothetical.

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