In his review of War Horse for IFC.com, Matt Singer noted that "I did like one scene which is complete enough as its own unit of story and character that it could be pulled out of the film and played as its own short subject." The scene, of course, is the one in which said horse, Joey, makes a gallop for freedom but becomes hopelessly entangled in the barbed wire that separates the British and German lines. A soldier from each side comes out to aid Joey; for a moment, the Great War pauses to admit compassion -- and Steven Spielberg pauses to work small.
I wish Spielberg had made a short subject, or even a trim feature, of that central moment, as it's free of everything that frustrated me about War Horse in its entirety: the insistent soundtrack that shoves us to and fro with plaintive piccolos and blatting-brass "hilarity"; the cartoonish attempts to show Joey (who is, after all, played…by a horse, and only expressive in certain ways) bonding with other horses and showing great heart and willing himself to escape and blah blah courage blah; the redundant exposition about Joey's many fine and remarkable qualities; the Saving Private Neighin' set pieces that strain to point up the horrors of war. The bit does contain continental characters speaking accented English instead of their native tongues, but that has a purpose here, at least, and isn't as Alcottsy and deadly dull as the Emilie sequence. (Or as poorly done. Top Secret! had better French accents.)
The plot, in brief: Joey is bought at auction by drunk seldom-do-well Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan, too broad) to show up his rich landlord. Joey's not a plowhorse, he's a Thoroughbred, but Ted's son Albert (the promising Jeremy Irvine) bonds with Joey immediately, and swears he can break the colt to plow and get the rocky field tilled by the deadline. After this Rocky-of-the-shire moment, Joey is basically drafted into the British army -- but by an officer who appreciates the special hoof-flake and promises Albert he'll get Joey home safe. Joey befriends another horse, Topthorne; escapes from various warlike tasks; gets caught in wire; and…cures the blind? Just go with it.
I rode horses as a girl, and worked as a stablehand in high school (the horse I had charge of was a goofy little blood bay named Indiana Jones, in fact) -- I wanted to like War Horse, and I went into it prepared to write off the schmaltz and soaring strings that so often go with horse movies. But it's just too long, with too many breaks for Bazooka-Joe "humor" and sick-child moralizing. I gasped at the beauty of several of the shots or sequences, like the cavalry mounting up in the tall grass, and the expert editing of the cuts between the oncoming charge and the merciless gunners getting hurdled by riderless horses; that bit in particular would have gutted me in the fourth grade.
But this isn't the fourth grade; we know Spielberg can "do this." He does it here and he does it well, but the real accomplishment from the man at this point would be resisting the urge to hold our hands every minute, or setting himself the challenge of getting it in under 110 minutes on the first cut. Hell, re-cut this one -- and boot that flatulent over-closed ending. I know many other reviews have mentioned the Gone with the Wind Technicolor skies, but: seriously! It's so over the top, you almost think he's joking! But it's Spielberg; he doesn't joke.
…Except in that barbed-wire sequence, which has a lightness to the banter, and gets at the message Spielberg is trying to send almost accidentally. The horror of war isn't always the barrage; sometimes it's the silences between, as in that scene with "enemies" working together and knowing the moment must end. The scene asks little of the horse except that he remain still, a symbol (which is how they work in our culture anyway, often), and subtracts the relationship with Albert, which starts out with a naïve sweetness but soon begins to seem rather weird. It doesn't show off. There isn't a cello. It's just a little story.
War Horse is handsome to look at; like Star Wars III, I'd have liked it more with my iPod in and some Handel playing. You want a real horse tearjerker, watch yourself some Phar Lap. You'll need IV fluids by the end.
This film's Oscar chances read to me as slim; the nominations may have been a gesture of respect, but it's not tapped for Best Director, so who knows. The score is diabetic and should not win; the cinematography could, and I would not hate that victory, but I wouldn't pick it.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.