By Addison of Philmalot
Steven Spielberg is the greatest director of the latter half of the 20th century and the most accomplished working now. His name has defined cinema after Alfred Hitchcock’s. Not all will agree. But I’ll just throw it out there for you to chew on/debate.
When you watch War Horse, Spielberg’s latest (one of this year’s nine nominees for Best Picture) one of two things will happen. Either, you’ll be invested in the heartwarming story and beautiful scenery, or you’ll be completely put off by the over-sentimentality. You won’t have to wait long to find out how you feel. Spielberg pours it on thick in the first 15 minutes.
In War Horse, a young thoroughbred named Joey is trained by a young boy named Albert. The two become very attached. So when Albert’s father has to sell the horse to pay the rent, Albert is heartbroken. The movie then follows the horse, Joey, as he passes hands to a series of owners. A British war captain, a German boy soldier, a grandfather and daughter, and another German officer.
Each of the new characters Joey meets gets a vignette about their life and circumstances at the time. We get solid performances from Tom Huddleston as a captain who deeply respects the horse he rides and the care young Albert has taken with it. The most moving performance in the film is from Niels Arestrup, as the French Grandfather who’s Granddaughter and her happiness are the most important things in his life. Effective, though not as moving, is Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narricott, the boy who first loved this horse. As the human who gets the most screentime, Mr. Irvine serves the role well, even when his character’s petulance and naiveté become a tad bit annoying.
Due to the nature of this story, however, the only character on screen enough to warrant being called a main character is Joey the horse. It’s part of the charm of War Horse. We get to see through Joey’s eyes all the different aspects of World War I from both sides. There are no good guys or bad guys. Just people for better or worse. And that is interesting.
|Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston in War Horse
But that very structure also makes it hard to fully invest in any character. By the time you feel like you’ve gotten to know enough to care for the person onscreen, they’re gone. When it works, Spielberg strikes an emotional chord with the viewer, showing the suddenness and unpredictability of war. But for those who aren’t already moved by what’s onscreen, that suddenness becomes frustrating.
As the movie progresses, the scenes become more interesting, more complex and involved. We gradually care more for the horse and become compelled by the situations he finds himself in. The scene that stands out as the best in the film comes near the beginning of the third act and takes place in the middle of a battlefield. It is very suspenseful, engrossing and oddly quiet.
Yet War Horse takes entirely too long to become compelling. This is largely due to the tone of the opening 15-30 mins. Spielberg goes over the top to get the viewer emotionally invested in the film and in the idea of this special horse. Unfortunately, it comes off as so…Corny. And since the beginning sets the expectations for what’s to come, it takes War Horse a long time to recover from its opening.
There isn’t much else wrong with Spielberg’s film. To be sure, War Horse (nominated for 6 Academy Awards, 4 of them technical) is beautiful. It’s a love letter to the best of John Ford epics. The setting in Devon, England is a lush, gorgeous countryside. Every shot is artistically and expertly lit. The visuals in this film are stunning. We wouldn’t expect less of Spielberg, a master of composition, with his longtime collaborator, Chief Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, who’s shot all of Spielberg’s films since 1993’s Schindler’s List.
But as a Best Picture nominee, War Horse is in a precarious position. It’s not as visually interesting as The Tree of Life. Its characters are far less memorable than those in The Help. It’s far less of a diversion from the norm for Spielberg as Hugo is for Scorsese (the other cinema defining name of the latter half of the 20th century.) It’s good, though not enough in any one particular area. So for War Horse to win a Best Picture Oscar, the movie as a whole must be greater than its parts.
What it does have going for it is Steven Spielberg, whose amazing body of work has only produced one Best Picture winner all of 19 years ago (Schindler’s List). He may be due for another. What’s more, the film is a technical masterpiece and an optimistic family drama, much like the Academy favors. Its chances greatly increase if voters are welling up at the start of this one instead of rolling their eyes. The fact that the film is nominated says that may be the case.
Still War Horse’s chances are slim. Among the Spielberg films to be nominated, there have been far stronger entries. A betting man would put his money on Hugo or the Tree of Life first. Then again, a betting man could make a ton of profit were this horse to beat the odds and win the race.