We’re talking about War Horse, a movie that makes maximum use of Spielberg’s talent for spectacle, as well as his penchant for pouring on the sentiment. I prefer the spectacle to the sentiment, but the mixture probably will result in one of the season’s most crowd-pleasing entertainments, a story held together by (as the title suggests) a horse.
How can you not feel sympathy for a horse that finds itself in the middle of some of the most horrific battles of World War I, at one point tangling himself in barbed wire on a scarred battlefield? It's one of the most agonizing sights you'll see this season, and Spielberg plays it for all it's worth.
Spielberg, of course, includes humans in his movie, as well, though none evokes as much emotion as the horse.
The story begins when Ted (Peter Mullan) outbids his landlord (David Thewlis) for a horse. Ted’s son (Jeremy Irvine) takes over care of the horse, which is more suited for running free than for the drudgery of farm work.
But Irvine’s Albert, who names the horse Joey, harnesses the horse’s energy and even proves that Joey can plow a rugged English field, an act of equine will that saves the family farm.
When war breaks out, Ted decides to sell Joey to the Army, and the movie becomes Spielberg’s foray into World War I. For his part, Albert pledges he will find Joey and return him to English pastures.
Once he becomes part of the military, Joey falls under the care of a strong but sensitive officer (Tom Hiddleston) – and the movie quickly breaks into episodic chunks, including a picture-slowing interlude in which Joey winds up in the care of a French grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens).
Of course, Albert eventually matures enough to join the British Army, which gives Spielberg a chance to show the kind of trench warfare that dominated that conflict. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski contrast the grim horror of war with the bucolic opening scenes, and there's no denying that some of the footage (horses pulling a huge cannon, for example) is both astonishing and sad.
And to make sure that we understand the humanity of both sides of the conflict, there's a scene that emphasizes the fact that the British soldiers and their German counterparts aren’t as different as they might believe themselves to be, the movie's can't-we-all-get-along moment. (Joey, it should be noted, falls into German hands at on point, and is pressed into service for the German army.)
Did I feel my heart strings being tugged at? Yes, but War Horse can seem so eager to connect with mainstream audiences that it loses some of its luster. There’s no denying Spielberg’s skill, but War Horse tries (too hard, I'd say) for the kind of epic grandeur that John Ford achieved when filming the American west.
War Horse boasts a dazzling display of craft; it's a horse-drawn tearjerker, the kind of old-fashioned movie that offers loads of big-screen reassurance no matter how harsh its content becomes. So I'm a little mixed on War Horse, which can be breathtakingly beautiful and ... well ... distressingly Spielbergian.