Review: War Horse

What does it mean to be manipulative? Cinema, after all, is entirely artificial, no matter what its intellectual or emotional content. As an audience, we are lead to follow a story that is entirely composed of visually prepared images for our consumption, which are edited together to convey an effect. In this sense, cinema is perhaps the most manipulative of all art forms. In his long, decades spanning career in filmmaking, Steven Spielberg has undergone endless criticism for his commercialism, his catering to the audience, and his sentimental touch. It has become something of a hallmark of Spielbergian cinema to taste a spoonful of saccharine goodness with nearly every film, be it in the overall texture of E.T. or even in the closing scenes of the otherwise harrowing Schindler’s List. At times, this indulgent sensation is rightfully earned, such as in the wondrous ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and other times it is deeply overwrought such as in the framing scenes of Saving Private Ryan. The times when Spielberg’s saccharine touches work best is when they are earned through the strength of the story and the characters. In the case of his latest film, the World War I epic War Horse, the emotional release is completely acceptable, given the investment in the characters, as well as Spielberg’s own tribute to traditional Hollywood studio epics from days gone by.

The equine title character of the film is named Joey, who throughout the course of the story passes through several masters, all of whom treat him with varying degrees of care, not unlike Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. The first of these is Albert, a strapping young British lad whose father wins him at an auction for the purpose of having the horse aid in plowing. Albert and Joey form a quick bond, and it becomes clear that they will have to go their separate ways once the first World War commences. Usually this type of plot device would make me yawn and roll my eyes, but the departure between Joey and Albert is affecting, even if one senses that is Spielberg’s direct intention. Throughout the war, Joey passes from owner to owner, and Spielberg once again shoots directly for the heart, allowing the audience to project their own feelings onto a protagonist who isn’t human. To have to follow the trials and tribulations of an animal whose investment in a human war is nonexistent is just about as manipulative as one could get, but it works because of the strength of Joey’s initial friendship with Albert. Additionally, one can give credit to Spielberg for not overdoing the golden glowing touches too much. For all the direct, emotional storytelling that War Horse aims for, there are nevertheless moments and scenes that are as simultaneously harrowing and breathtaking as anything Spielberg has put on screen.

For all of the obvious themes that War Horse makes readily apparent, such as courage, perseverance and hope, there are other scenes which hint at shades of grey in the black and white trenches of war, reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front. Speaking of which, War Horse not only hearkens to the emotional storytelling of the films from 1940’s and 1950’s Hollywood, but also follows those film’s visual styles. It contains the all the optimism of Frank Capra, the epic scale of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, and an unwavering attention to landscape akin to John Ford. Staggeringly shot by Janusz Kaminski, War Horse at times feels directly lifted from the period it emulates so effectively, and that is part of the reason why it works so well. One accepts that it is literally from that time period, so its overly earnest approach makes it acceptable. An interesting aspect of the cinematography is the way the visual style changes as Joey comes into the possession of a new owner. The colors and vistas in the care of Albert are glowing and meticulously framed, but when Joey falls into the hands of the Germans, handheld camera movement and a desaturated grimy look take hold. John Williams’ score is as sweeping as ever, and the production design faithfully recreates World War I Europe without drawing much attention to itself. What is actually most impressive about War Horse is its refusal to rely on CGI to recreate its time period or even its breathtaking battles. A great deal of the film is achieved on a practical level, and this makes the battle scenes feel visceral and immediate. For instance, the harsh, ashen landscape of No Man’s Land in the film’s third act calls to memory Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.

Despite typically strong editorial work from Michael Kahn, War Horse is not always perfectly paced, and the ending of the film is something of a foregone conclusion. However, the tenderness with which Spielberg achieves it is nevertheless admirable, and yes, even moving. If one completely accepts the film’s honest intentions, then it becomes a rewarding experience. In this case, the emotion works because Spielberg makes no bones about it, as opposed to some of his other films where it is as if one feels ambushed and coddled into it. When the final shots play out, one is reminded of The Searchers and Gone with the Wind, yet War Horse is ultimately more than an homage to classic American cinema. With its collection of memorable characters, exceptional photography, and determined optimism, this horse stands on its own four hooves.

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~ by romancinema on December 30, 2011.

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