Thursday, December 29, 2011

War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Like his other release this year, The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg's War Horse indulges in the best and worst of a particular facet of the director's talent. Tintin lacks a proper dramatic arc and works largely without any stakes, yet it showcases Spielberg's talent for choreographing dynamic, vast setpieces of eye-popping visual marvels. War Horse, the more low-key, Oscar-friendly picture, contains moments of such beauty as to border on the poetic, matching the most abstract and haunting shots of the director's canon. But it is also such a hand-holding, tedious affair as to display the most immature, irritating traits of Spielberg's storytelling. In other terms, if Tintin displays Spielberg at his most childlike, War Horse shows him at his most childish.

War Horse barely even gets started before it's in your face with forced wonder, opening on a young English farm boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), watching the birth of a foal with fascination. But the film moves through a quick series of shots that continue to convey Albert's instant love of this creature, even as the edits clearly hop over a significant portion of time. Within seconds of screen time, the foal grows into a yearling, but Albert has that same dopey look on his face. Does that mean he walked around like the village idiot for weeks, even months, gawping at a damn horse? And when Albert's lovable alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at an auction just to get one over his landlord, the lad is so overjoyed that the very real possibility his dad just made them homeless matters nothing next to owning "Joey," All the while, John Williams score insists you take a handkerchief, regardless of whether your eyes are wet. This is not the organic Spielberg who could masterfully manipulate an audience to genuine reaction; this is a battering ram methodically slamming against the portcullis until it can break through and shove the intended emotional response down everyone's throat.

A few treacly, minor triumphs categorize this first segment, as Albert trains Joey to plow in order to satisfy that landlord, played by David Thewlis in a one-note sneer he occasionally tries and fails to deepen. But even the small victory of plowing a rocky field Bought by a sweet, naïve captain (Tom Hiddleston) as his personal war steed, Joey gets steered into the battlefront, where the cruelty of WWI will wrench him constantly into new ownership and halt the film once more to let some other character give off a whiff of emotional heft before moving off again.

Spielberg excels at investing audience sympathy in non-human subjects. E.T. is equally as worthy of the audience's love and worry as Elliot, while David the robot is more recognizably human than any of A.I.'s actual homo sapiens. But as one can see by the initial focus on Albert over "Joey," the horse in War Horse is not really the star, merely the vehicle for dragging along the plot like that plow he must tug while still on the farm. If Spielberg innovates anything here, it is to at last make a non-human character as much of a blank canvas for projection as poorly written human ciphers. David and E.T. come with their own personalities, but Joey is just there, smoothing the narrative transitions between perspectives as the POV is handed off with the horse's reins. When Joey at all features front and center, it is either to get a laugh for his cheek or a tear for his hardship. Yet the only true subjugation of this poor creature is by the director, who puts Joey in precarious situations simply for the empty rush of concern the audience might feel for him.

Shot with a refreshing amount of color, War Horse moves so far away from the "realism" of so many Spielberg-Kaminski pairings that the director and cinematographer move into near-Technicolor levels of old Hollywood filmmaking. When the horse finally goes to war an hour into the film, Spielberg treats us to images that survey war with formal remove instead of handheld verisimilitude, and his shots are stunning. The sudden mounting of horses hidden in a wheat field, sending grains flying into the air like a blizzard as a cavalry materializes, is gorgeous, thrilling, but also tense. Likewise, Spielberg's method of eliding over the deaths in the resultant charge into machine guns, by showing now-riderless horses bounding past the gun placements, is oddly serene despite the horror of what it depicts. Furthermore, the shots of trench warfare manage to top even Stanley Kubrick's ability to evoke sheer, senseless carnage in Paths of Glory. The trenches are claustrophobic death pits clouded over by gunsmoke and rendered chaotic by constant bombardment, but no man's land makes these sweltering, overcrowded holes look like Xanadu. Crisscrossing webs of barbed wire become clotheslines for fallen soldiers, festering puddles of stagnant rainwater splashing god knows what bacteria on the few who wade through them without dying. War in War Horse despite its lack of desaturated film stock, the omission of blood, and the perfection of its craftsmanship, occasionally looks more hellish and insensible than battle in Saving Private Ryan.

But as much as the film might show off the director's clear mastery of classical filmmaking, it also reveals the oversimplifying limitations of that method of storytelling. Richard Curtis, who co-wrote the magnificent Blackadder Goes Forth (still my favorite work of fiction, humorous or otherwise, on WWI), helps pen a depressingly thin portrait of WWI-era Europe. The opening segment is a cut-out of prewar English life: Mullan looks more like an old comic-strip drunk than Captain Haddock himself, while Emily Watson makes Important Statements about everything from the folly of buying the horse to the heroism her husband hides from the world. (At all other times, she stands in front of the homestead as if she forgot what continent and time period she's in and is expecting Sherman to burn the farm to the ground any second.) Class, a key factor in the outbreak and strategies of the war, is here reduced to a few broad sketches, which might have been permissible if the story were really Joey's. But our beloved war horse is on the other side of the battlefield when the fleeting grasp at class commentary in the British trenches is made, making the half-hearted attempt at depth all the more meaningless.

The fatuous, hollow manipulation of so much of the film is all the more frustrating for the moments where everything comes together and Spielberg shows his talent for hooking an audience. After denying the Germans humanity in Saving Private Ryan, here they get to be as real as the Englishmen, which is not saying much, but still. A sequence of a young soldier using a captured Joey and another English cavalry horse to abduct his younger brother from going to the front lines, trading certain death for a merely probable one for going AWOL, is both stirring and bleak. And one scene in particular will go down as one of Spielberg's best moments: Joey finds himself ensnared by barbed wire in no man's land between German and British trenches, and a soldier from each side heads out in peace to help the beast. It's a beautiful, unforced exchange, the teasing conversation that the two men strike up more like the taunts of rival football fans than soldiers sworn to kill the other for king (or kaiser) and country. Highlighting the pointlessness of WWI without having to make any big speech, this scene finds real affirmation in the momentary ceasefire, a reminder that war is something "other people" declare, and that those sent to die in it often share more with the people shooting at them than the high command that keeps pushing them forward.

But even this magnificent scene is hobbled by a simperingly dumb visual gag of nervous Germans chucking their wire cutters over the top when the two exposed men ask for a second pair. Like that unnecessary extra scream in Jaws involving the severed head, this one shot shows Spielberg getting greedy, doing a disservice to his own greatness by trying too hard to get one more reaction out of the audience. And that is but the least egregious example of Spielberg's awkward, counterproductive attempts to elicit some form of response from the audience he used to know how to play like a symphony. In my review for Tintin, a mechanical but spectacular delight, I noted that Spielberg made his first film since Jurassic Park that made me feel unabashed, "How did he do that?" wonder. But War Horse aims to be more moving fare, which Spielberg has made more regularly in the second half of his career. Empire of the SunSchindler's List, A.I., and Munich all make for complicated and ambiguous dramas that find the doubt, even the incurable pain, in their subject matter. War Horse ends with the most contrived happy ending since everything magically turned out OK for the main family in War of the Worlds.

Spielberg has long been able to tell children's stories that set kids on the path to growing up, often in harsh terms. War Horse tours the audience through the horrors of the first War to End All Wars, only to dump us off unchanged at the end. Like the horse it pretends is the protagonist, the film has no understanding, no insight, into what it sees. Its most affecting moments seem to occur almost in spite of the movie as a whole, which routinely finds ways to maintain the audience's overall comfort level while milking them for sympathy. It's just a crying exercise, something to cleanse the body of toxins to send back out into the world, none the wiser but vaguely refreshed. There is merit in that kind of film, but War Horse wants to be so much more, to be so captivating and resonant from start to finish, that even its ephemeral pleasures must be considered a failure.


  1. Haven't seen Tintin, but the "childlike" v. "childish" comparison is terrifically apt. We seem in agreement on this one. (I'm the only one who doesn't like the exchange between the trenches but that's irrelevant.) I think Spielberg's biggest error - a failure of either imagination or nerve - was his inability to characterize the horse. In my review I wrote about how Carroll Ballard in his films has the unique ability to take animals on their own terms. Spielberg doesn't anthropomorphize Joey exactly, but he doesn't go the Full Ballard either. As a result, like you said, we're left with a blank slate, and asking your audience to project itself onto a horse is a bit different than, say, Benjamin Braddock.

    I don't think War Horse is terrible, just middling. It lost me very early, when all the villagers come and gape at Albert and Joey plowing the field. I thought, "Christ, don't these people have anything better to do?" Followed by, "Doesn't Spielberg trust the inherent tension in the scene without having to pile on a bunch of sniggering onlookers making a chorus of catcalls?" The answer to both questions is apparently no.

  2. Yeah, that scene made my jaw drop. But it's just one of several that obliterated the movie's stakes just when something important was about to happen. Like, the whole bit with the French girl. It is utterly useless and a dramatic pit that adds nothing and kills momentum and severity. In your piece on Spielberg's limitations as a "serious" filmmaker, you mentioned all the caper-like stuff in the POW camps in Empire of the Sun as something that detracted from the film's initial tone, but for me those scenes enhanced it. There's a desperation to Jim's myopic perception of his internment, a psychological need to make an adventure of his surroundings to preserve his sanity. (And as we can see at the end, it was all for naught.)

    But there is no severity to Emilie's playing with the horses, and the grandfather's grumbly speechifying about the pigeon simply must be a holdover from the play that should have been excised. I know the material was based on a children's novel, but that doesn't excuse the film for so routinely undercutting itself to ease off with slapstick or other gags like the whole village turning up to cheer and jeer.

  3. Maybe it's just me but I thought all films are meant to be manipulative one way or another. The whole point of movies are to entertain by making you feel some kind of emotion, be it horror, joy, or sadness. To fault a film for intentionally try to make you feel something is rather stupid.

  4. "To fault a film for intentionally try to make you feel something is rather stupid."

    Then I guess it's a good thing I said nothing of the sort and in fact praised Spielberg's ability to guide in audience in his better movies, isn't it Joe? Work on your reading comprehension before you waste my time.

  5. Went to this movie on New Years Eve, because it was a Spielberg movie. Left thinking maybe his kid made it. Very childish plot, and some very amateurish film making as well. Bouncing from one scene to another, I could never connect with the story or the characters. The english speaking Germans were convenient, the accents of the English spoken by the non-English was interesting, and the ability of the horse to read the boy's mind was remarkable. Unfortunately it was also all very superficial and unbelievable. I was expecting a cross between Saving Private Ryan and ET. I got a catastrophe, an absolute joke of a movie, and a waste of my families time.

    Couldn't get over the size of the newborn foal at the start, totally unrealistic. The scene of the tank "stalking" the horse was puzzling. The terrible cut that supposedly doomed the horse didn't look too bad on the closeup view........but then it wasn't even in the next shot with the horse standing there. I really think Spielberg must have rushed this to the reel, there is no way he could be this bad on purpose. It was so bad, the only fun I had was making fun of the movie as I watched it. I am an animal professional, so maybe I scrutinized some of the unrealistic animal scenes more closely. But you would also think I would connect with the animal characters more. Did not elicit any emotion from me except sadness that I payed for my family to watch it. The review above was right on....Childish, both in plot and moviemaking. I have not idea what the excellent reviews I read prior to attending the movie were thinking. I wish I had read this review first.

  6. Yeah, damn those wire-cutters. Speilberg just can't help being silly, which is his downfall as a filmmaker. I agree with a lot of your criticisms, Jake, but I also really enjoyed the very effective scenes you praise here. I finally concluded that as a movie designed for family audiences, this is a pretty successful movie. On second viewing, I forgave the film its emotional excesses and enjoyed it a lot for its epic sweep.

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