Review: Steven Spielberg's 'War Horse' An Awards Bait Movie Overloaded With Nostalgia & Sentiment

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by Todd Gilchrist
December 16, 2011 10:02 AM
10 Comments
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If David Thomson was accurate when he said of Tom Hanks, “he carries the automatic sentiment of a dog in a film about people,” then the hero of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” is the equine equivalent of Tom Hanks: among his human counterparts he attracts such instantaneous concern and compassion that audiences are helpless but to sympathize with him. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean you’ll care about the film itself as automatically, because here, Spielberg dials up the sentimentality to almost unbearable levels. His film version of the 1982 novel by Michael Morpungo, which became, in 2007 Nick Stafford’s stage play, comes to us overloaded with nostalgia both historical and cinematic as well as a joylessly persistent sense of nobility. “War Horse” is the type of film for which the term “Oscar bait” was invented, precisely because it feels like there’s no motivation for it to exist except to win awards.

The true star of the film is the horse itself, a magnificent creature raised on an English farm by Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) after his souse of a father, Ted (Peter Mullan), outbids their overbearing landlord Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis) for the steed at a local auction. In spite of his diminutive, sub-Clydesdale stature, the horse – named “Joey” – quickly proves his mettle as both a do-er and a thinker: after accepting a challenge from Lyons to plow an untenable plot of land, Albert discovers Joey’s almost preternatural ability to learn, and his perseverance in accomplishing almost any task that is demanded of him. Nevertheless, Ted sells Joey to Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston) for battle in WWI, and he’s soon shipped off to the front lines. But despite Nichols’ promise to Albert to take care of him, Joey gets lost in battle, and the horse soon begins an epic, unpredictable journey across the scarred landscape of war-torn Europe, even as Albert enlists in the British Army in order to find him and bring him back to their family farm.

It’s an interesting coincidence that Spielberg made “War Horse” in the same year that Martin Scorsese made “Hugo,” because despite both auteurs’ own distinctive styles, both films reflect the influence of their cinematic forebears. But in Scorsese’s case, Melies and the artists of the silent era provided him with a foundation of celluloid inspiration to both celebrate and draw upon as he created his own story, while Spielberg seems nakedly – and pointlessly – interested in recreating the theatricality of John Ford and Victor Fleming, all the while mining his own back catalogue too, in combining the visceral intensity of “Saving Private Ryan” with the primal sentimentality of “E.T.” As with all of his films, Spielberg’s technical bona fides are indisputable, but here they’re employed to reductive, and ultimately redundant ends. It’s unclear whether he should get a gold star for evoking films like “Gone With The Wind” and “Paths Of Glory,” or if we should get one for recognizing the similarities between his shots to theirs, but his homages carry no greater emotional weight than an average cutaway gag on “Family Guy,” even if they are paid and executed more respectfully.

That said, Spielberg may have exhausted what he can do with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with whom he’s worked on every film since “Schindler’s List” and who in the past decade particularly has given his work a milky, desaturated sheen. While most of “War Horse” is as vivid and stylized as the works it references, the duo nevertheless make some genuinely odd choices, starting with the disorienting abundance of light in the opening scenes that shines from a sun that’s apparently beneath the earth. As if referencing the Riddle of the Sphinx, Spielberg shoots the film with lighting that’s tonal, not purely chronological, suggesting it all takes place in the span of one day – the opening scenes take place “in the morning,” the final ones “in the evening,” and so on. And that’s an interesting stylistic choice, but how does it really enhance the storytelling, other than perhaps making the audience feel as if they’ve been sitting there for a full day as opposed to for the film’s two-plus-hour running time?

Then, of course, there’s the film’s cast, which includes Irvine, Mullan, Hiddleston, Thewlis, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, and Niels Arestrup – a who’s-who of European actors recruited from the independent film world to give this crowd-pleasing melodrama some much-needed gravitas. But while their performances are interchangeably effective as delivery systems of exposition or emotional punctuation, with the exception of Thewlis’ petty landlord, they fail to offer more to their characters than stiff-lipped nobility, albeit in a narrow spectrum that ranges from tragic to heroic. This truly is a film for any person who regularly says, “I don’t believe in war, but I support our troops” – every soldier only reluctantly fulfills the demands of his contract to kill for country, and on multiple occasions a character is given an opportunity to supply ambivalent observations like, “maybe he threw away his medals of honor because he wasn’t proud to have killed people.” Almost uniformly, the worst crime any military officer commits is callousness towards our animal protagonist – which admittedly in this film is tantamount to a hate crime – but for the most part they’re one step away from being an ideal of what we want soldiers to be, if they aren’t already exemplary.

Finally, the horse (or horses) used for Joey gives the second-best nonverbal performance of the year (after “The Artist” star Jean Dujardin), and Spielberg shoots him/them as beautifully, and expressively, as any animal has ever been photographed. Indeed, it’s easy to believe that Spielberg undertook the film as a test for himself, to see if he could build a film around a nonhuman protagonist – and in that regard, he certainly succeeded in telling a complete and well-rendered story. Moreover, for a film that features a main character who instantly if not automatically has the audience’s sympathies, it’s surprisingly difficult (or at least it was for yours truly) to get fully invested emotionally in a tale that can’t decide whether it wants to pay more attention to that main character, or the “supporting” ones that walk on two legs and actually talk.

Otherwise, however, there’s no obvious reason other than its inevitable acclaim why one of the most accomplished filmmakers of the modern era took on such conspicuously generic material, especially since he already tackled much of its subject matter in more distinctive and interesting ways previously in his career. Because if his contemporaries can still work within their wheelhouses while exploring new territory, and further, expanding their cinematic mythos, then so can he. That said, “War Horse” certainly doesn’t tarnish Spielberg’s reputation as a virtuoso purveyor of four-square mainstream entertainment, attended to with an artist’s eye -- it’s handsome, old-fashioned in appreciable ways, and executed with stunning technical acumen. But the final disappointment isn’t that he failed to provide a better film – it’s that if you’re making a film that feels like a surefire award-winner, then at the very least it needs to feel like it’s worthy of those awards. [C+]

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10 Comments

  • Collin | January 12, 2012 4:47 PMReply

    "...the king of audience manipulation"

    Audience manipulation is the basis of filmmaking.

  • Dorothy | December 18, 2011 2:22 PMReply

    Looking forward to seeing this movie when it reaches the USA!

  • MIKE | December 18, 2011 11:09 AMReply

    First off, Speilberg is such good director! He doesn't care about awards like you say. He cares about art. War Horse looks like such emotional movie that it probably meant a lot to him. If you created piece of art and someone said you just wanted a award, you'd be really hurt. Think about this great director's feelings before you jump to conclosions.

  • Jon | December 20, 2011 8:13 PM

    Yes, a movie reviewer should think about how the filmmaker would feel about the review before the reviewer publishes it. *rolls eyes*

    I saw a prescreening of this film and completely agree with this reviewer. It was his, and my own, honest reaction to the film. Film reviewers review movies and give their opinion regardless of how the Director would feel if they read it. Why should this reviewer change his opinion to satisfy Spielberg.

    Spielberg is a good director, but this film is disappointing. This is one of Spielberg's films that won't last. When people think of Spielberg's films they'll think E.T. or Schindler's List not War Horse. It's not a great movie. Period. Good directors don't always make good films. This is the truth regardless of how Steven Spielberg would feel about this fact.

  • Mike | December 16, 2011 1:34 PMReply

    Such cynicism, sure it's sentimental, but "no motivation for it to exist except to win awards"? This is a story that was acclaimed and reached a lot of people 30 years ago as a novel, and has been a critical & commercial sensation as a play in London & on Broadway. Spielberg has multiple awards from pretty much every awards body, and has the power to get any film he wants made, I highly doubt he would be motivated to waste part of his life making a film that didn't mean something to him or that he didn't think would reach his audience just for awards at this point. In fact is argue against the very idea of Oscar bait as the entire motivation behind any project. Sure some actors and crew may sign up for things based on that, but even if the films are in the academy's wheelhouse it doesn't mean there is no other reason for it to exist. Take the King's Speech, people like to cry Oscae bait foul on that film but the filmmakers were clearly interested in telling an inspiring true story, without resorting to audience manipulation ala The Blind Side.

  • Nik Grape | December 16, 2011 3:51 PM

    Setting aside the fact that Spielberg is the king of audience manipulation, the point of the review is the final line: "if you’re making a film that feels like a surefire award-winner, then at the very least it needs to feel like it’s worthy of those awards" - Spielberg is getting old and has done so much, has so much money etc. that it's normal to lose sight of the ball when you've playing the game for so long. "War Horse" just sounds like something he wanted to experiment with (working with animals probably) and didn't really have a passion for. That's fine, but it doesn't make for a great movie. Can't wait for Lincoln 'cause that's something he's been wanting to do for a long time and is a passion project.

  • Nik Grape | December 16, 2011 12:17 PMReply

    Nicely written and it seems to be confirming every doubt I had about this film. Looks like it all boils down to "if you don't like horses or pretty cinematography, you'll fall asleep".

  • Gustavo | March 12, 2012 2:29 PM

    So, you won't even see the movie, even though you could end up disagreeing with the reviewer. So lame.

  • Semp | December 16, 2011 11:59 AMReply

    "it feels like there’s no motivation for it to exist except to win awards"
    You're jumping to conclusions. This kind of sentence should not belong in a film review. Review the film and not the supposed intent of the director which you can only imagine by speculation. Obviously, there are many motivations for Spielberg to shoot something like War Horse (the impulse to revisit old theme, the wish to expand the scope to make nature a character, the impulse to create a story of hope in difficult times and to offer it to a world who's having a difficult time rendering people cynical, the challenge of re-creating the cinema of the old Hollywood masters of which Spielberg is by many aspects the heir, the wish to create the illusion of a dream through lighting and camera work and not through the invention of a supernatural world (the ending is filmed like it comes from a dream; this is what makes it interesting; who cares if it resembles Gone with the wind). But to try to pintpoint one motivation and make it the only explanation possible for this film makes you look like a snob cynical.

  • Todd Gilchrist | December 16, 2011 12:39 PM

    Hi Semp,

    You're absolutely right - except that I specifically don't just dismiss the film that way, or make a singular hypothesis about why it was made. The second to last paragraph speculates at what might have been appealing to Spielberg technically and artistically, independent of its award-worthiness. Nevertheless I can only articulate my honest reaction to the film, and as it winded towards its ending, I couldn't figure out why the filmmakers cared about this - if only because I definitely didn't, and was trying in earnest to find a reason.

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