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War Horse
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by Brett Gallman

"Old Hollywood gets a shiny new saddle."
5 stars

It’s been nearly a week since I’ve seen “War Horse,” and I’ve struggled to resist the urge to call it old-fashioned and classic, a couple of reductive, empty terms. However, that’s what I keep coming back to, and I’ve sort of embraced that this is what it is: Steven Spielberg’s unabashed update of vintage sentimentalism, and it’s a film so transparent that you can practically feel its hooks on your heartstrings from the opening frame. Few directors would be able to take such reigns and gently guide you to what feels like the inevitable destination for “War Horse,” but this is old hat for Spielberg, whose trademark sincerity never wavers here.

The material is also familiar territory for him, as this is another war story, this time filtered through a horse named Joey. Born to a humble English farming family, Joey is cared for from birth by the son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and the two form a sort of ragtag duo until the outbreak of the first World War. It’s here that Joey is sold off to the army and embarks on a journey that Albert swears will somehow end with their reunion.

And there’s never any doubt that this is how it’s going to end; you can feel that big moment welling up from the moment Albert witnesses Joey’s birth with that wide-eyed, awestruck gaze that Spielberg has popularized (and Irvine has the perfect face for this). This is one of those small, emotional moments that Spielberg often manages to render a grand spectacle. As quaint as the opening act of “War Horse” is, it’s infused with huge, broad melodrama that’s almost anachronistic at this point. But it makes sense, as this is totally John Ford stuff, as it’s concerned with a downtrodden family at odds with both the natural elements and a greedy land-baron looking to take their farm. All of this feels like it should be so moldy, as Spielberg is kicking the dust off of plot points and sentiment that even Ford himself eventually wringed dry, and there’s even a hint of false idealism to the whole thing.

However, there’s also a real freshness to it--sometimes, we need an shameless throwback to this kind of purity, and the film itself needs this twee, blissful portrait to clash with the horrors the story eventually presents. One might say the film really begins to gallop once Joey heads off to war, where he’s passed on from the noble British soldier that purchases him (Tom Hiddleston) to a couple of German soldiers before finding himself on another small farm owned by an elderly man (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens). All of these people are almost achingly noble; again, Spielberg is painting in broad strokes to show how this purity can get lost and twisted during war.

Like Kubrick in “Paths of Glory,” he only needs one sequence to illustrate the physical horrors of trench warfare, and it’s marvelously directed. Capturing the dizzying, disorienting, and terrifying nature of charging into a smoky, chaotic battlefield, it’s a harrowing scene that will obviously recall the visceral opening volley of “Saving Private Ryan.” But like he did in that film, Spielberg saves the most potent, powerful moment for when the dust settles. Perhaps the most affecting image comes here as well, as Joey becomes twisted in barbed wire in No Man’s Land, and the symbolism is obvious: this magnificent, untamed creature has become mangled by the grating, biting machinery of man, and it leads to a powerful sequence that fully exposes the absurdity of war.

Not unlike the World War 1 Christmas Truce, this moment reveals how arbitrary it all is--one minute, two soldiers are blindly shooting at each other, the next, they’re helping to free a horse from its imprisonment. The exchange ends with one telling the other to keep his head down during the fighting the next day, perhaps revealing just how inevitable and ingrained conflict is.

At the same time, we catch up with Albert at this point; he, too, has been changed by war, but he never loses that naïve innocence; I don’t know if it’s accurate to describe this as a movie that highlights the changes of war so much as it’s one that reminds us of that its damage isn’t irrevocable. More than anything, Joey becomes a symbol of healing, and his eventual reunion with Albert (predictable though it may be) is a miraculous event treated without a shred of insincerity. It builds to this huge Old Hollywood climax that finds the silhouettes of the principal characters fore-grounded against a sunset--perhaps the simplest of images, but one that completely captures the emotion of the moment. On a purely aesthetic level, it’s one of the most gorgeous, painterly moments I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s underpinned by the genuine, palatable joy of the characters.

In my review for “Tintin,” I remarked that Spielberg was using new technology to dazzle us in the same old ways; in this case, “War Horse” sees him dipping into an old well all the way around. The subject matter is golden age stuff, and his tools here are old standbys: a big, soaring score from John Williams and remarkable cinematography from Janusz Kaminski (this is the best looking Spielberg movie in years). “War Horse” is most certainly a unashamed feel-good story that goes for big sentiment in a cynical, unsentimental age.

I’m happy to that Speilberg has somehow maintained his sense of wondrous optimism throughout his career; sometimes we need these kinds of movies to escape and retreat to a more pure time. Call it nostalgia or a golden age fallacy if you like, but I think “War Horse” is just honest enough with its horrors to resist becoming a cloying, false experience. War isn’t hell so much as it’s just purgatory, and you can eventually go home again. Reunion is at the center of "War Horse"; in many ways, it reunites us with these antiquated notions and storytelling devices--and we're much better off for it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20713&reviewer=429
originally posted: 01/04/12 05:16:24
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User Comments

12/23/13 Michelle O wish I had seen this in the theatre! & that's MAJOR for me!! 4 stars
6/23/12 glitter Syrupy sentimental, unbelievable plot twists. Had its moments but in the end I felt nothing 2 stars
5/24/12 Scott B. Couldn't have said it better. Got tired of being hit over the head with sentimentality. 3 stars
4/23/12 Chris B Awful film. Horrible lighting. Orange photoshop ending. 1 stars
3/27/12 Tyler Kirk REALLY? Why are the majority of the reviews "Total Crap"? This movie was great! 4 stars
3/24/12 Svend P Spot on! Very Boring movie indeed 2 stars
3/19/12 Herbert M Berman I walked out about an hour into the dull prologue. 1 stars
3/14/12 M plodded along, cast was a bit drab but plot/visuals kept me through 3 stars
2/04/12 Movie lover It a piece of crap, syrupy drivel, trite garbage! 1 stars
1/26/12 Andy Mellor Formulaic sentimental rubbish. Possibly Speilberg's worst film 2 stars
1/25/12 Devin Sabas slow a rare miss for spielberg 2 stars
1/04/12 Joanna Cumberbatch Good for present day movies; shortchanged grandfather/granddaughter subplot 4 stars
12/27/11 Darkstar It's good, but not worthy of a best pic nomination 3 stars
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  25-Dec-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 03-Apr-2012


  DVD: 03-Apr-2012

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