Steven Spielberg’s movie about a horse who goes to war is as pretty as it is preposterous. It’s gotten positive reviews from a wide array of critics, including some very good ones, and a Best Picture nomination. It’s better than I thought it was going to be; given the advertising I had pretty low expectations. It just looked like the most overbearing schmaltzy nonsense, but I should have remembered that even the worst Spielberg films at least look great. This is going to end up sounding more negative than I really feel about the film, mostly because I just don’t understand the arguments being used to in favor of its greatness. I thought it was fine, a lovely, silly movie. Better than Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and Ron Howard’s Far and Away, but somewhere in that area.
One thing that constantly pops up in reviews of the film is that it is a harkening back to an older style of filmmaking, often dropping names like Ford, Lean, Borzage and Capra and genres like melodrama, but I don’t really understand what is so old fashioned about it. There are shots that recall Gone with the Wind and The Quiet Man, but that’s not what people are referring to, and anyways the film is more Spielbergian in visual style than anything else (and he remains a composer of lovely, often striking images and excellent editor, this film would play brilliantly with the sound turned off). The film’s sentimentality can’t be what is old fashioned about it, because sentimental films get made every year, and it seems to me that the kind of sentimentality it presents, a very obviously constructed and manipulative kind of sentimentality, is more a product of modern cynicism than anything else, that and the obligatorily overbearing John Williams score. This kind of broad emotionality has long been a major part of Spielberg’s work, but I’d say it’s a lot more effectively done in films like ET or Empire of the Sun, which are grounded in a real world filled with unusual and complex characters, than this one which exists in a kind of theoretical movie-world filled with cartoons.
I’m frankly flabbergasted by any comparisons with John Ford, who never made a film whose characters and relationships were this lacking in nuance. Franks Borzage and Capra make a little more sense, but in their films the emotions grow organically out of the characters and their specific spiritual/political belief systems, whereas in War Horse every sequence is built instead around the emotional note Spielberg wants to hammer into you. Compare the construction of a Borzage film like Street Angel or Seventh Heaven, built around small-scale character interactions that slowly build to an ecstatic spiritual release, one that, despite its unreality is made believable by the solidity of the characters and their relationship with each other, to the construction of War Horse, which leaps from emotion to emotion with no time for character development in between. This is partly a byproduct of the film’s episodic nature, but even the central relationship of the film, the one that bookends and unbalances it, the relationship between Albie the English Farmboy and Joey the Horse begins at 11 and never modulates, never deepens. Instead, the characters we get are pure types: precocious but sickly girl, kindly grandfather, naive kids, cruel German and all kinds of horse-lovers: melancholy rich officers, kind-hearted fat man, determinedly insouciant Englishmen, etc. It’s telling that the most authentic, believable relationship in the film, and one of the loveliest same-sex partnerships I’ve seen in awhile, is between two horses.
Bilge Ebiri makes a decent case for the movie over at his blog and I buy what he’s saying up to a point, especially as regards the film’s ending, which he seems to think is a lot less happy than the way most people seem to be reading it. It’s telling, though, that his case for the film is almost entirely based on its visual style, the way the film builds its story of war from the bucolic beauty of the 19th Century to the mechanized horror of the 20th. In this reading, the ending, with its enflamed sky and characters as silhouettes (a striking homage to the end of the first half of Gone with the Wind) is not so much a vision of redemption and triumph, but of a world consumed by fire, reducing humanity (but not the horse) to shadows. I can ignore a lot in a film in favor of a few great moments like this, and while War Horse does have several moments as great as any in any film this year, there’s just too much nonsense to overcome for me to really consider it a great movie.