Silver Screen: War Horse **

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It's often difficult to tell if a Steven Spielberg film is good. That wasn't always the case. Many o
Bryan Miller

It's often difficult to tell if a Steven Spielberg film is good. That wasn't always the case. Many of his early movies are near perfect-- Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, even the lithe TV thriller Duel--  while the occasional dud like 1941 stood out in contrast.

As he's aged, Spielberg has only grown as a technician. Some four decades after making his debut, he remains at the top of the game, able to dazzle with a single shot or unspool a narrative through crafty visual cues as well as any young upstart director. Yet while he continues to refine his technique, Spielberg’s become increasingly sentimental and long-winded, even more prone to fits of mawkishness and emotional manipulation. As a consequence, his stories and ideas are increasingly compromised even as their execution improves.

Thus, the cerebral sci-fi fairytale A.I., a real visual spectacle imbued with the chilliness of his collaborator, Stanley Kubrick, got bogged down with a silly forced redemption via sparkly aliens. The visceral depiction of World War II in Saving Private Ryan is softened with silly frame sequences that remind viewers how they're supposed to feel. By the same token, even his most forgettable films, like War of the Worlds, contain moments of totally arresting spectacle. Spielberg is visually articulate, but his ability to convey an idea with images is unfortunately not matched by a way with words.

In that sense, War Horse is Spielberg at his most Spielbergian. Great moments are interwoven with unrelenting schmaltz, stark realism is stood side by side with cheap narrative ploys. That it is by and large an anthology film only exacerbates the imbalances, and unfortunately the film's standout sequences are mostly lost in a big soupy mess.

Based on the novel by English writer Michael Morpurgo, the film follows World War I from the perspective of a horse named Joey. He's born pre-war and, in a protracted forty-five-minute prologue, raised and trained by a plucky English farmboy named Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). This is almost a mini-movie in itself, and Spielberg gives it a distinctly different aesthetic-- it has the jaunty, overbearing score and soundstage aesthetic of a children's movie, and not a good one, either. You'll find yourself counting the number of times Spielberg cuts to shots of bright-eyed English boys grinning into the camera and exclaiming variations of, “That's some horse!”

The loss of innocence for Albert and Europe at large is signaled by a distinct tonal shift after the boy is forced to sell Joey to a soldier in the cavalry (Tom Hiddleston) who vows to return to the animal to Albert if he can. From here the movie shifts into anthology mode, as Joey's path through the war involves him in several smaller dramas that paint a broader picture of the conflict. After being saddled by Hiddleston's contemplative but outmoded soldier and being ridden into a doomed charge led by a clueless officer (the cartoonishly British actor Benedict Cumberbatch), Joey enters the lives of a pair of brothers deserting battle, an older man (played by Niels Arestrup) struggling to raise his orphaned granddaughter, and in the trenches on both sides of No Man's Land.

The strongest sequences are those depicting the horrors of war. Hiddleston shines in his few scenes, the first really compelling moments of the movie, and Spielberg's rendering of trench warfare is slightly toned down but recalls the intensity and sensory overload of Saving Private Ryan's opening slaughter. This is where Spielberg the master craftsman takes over.

To make a horse the protagonist of a movie in which thousands of people die might seem like a potentially insensitive approach, but it actually works beautifully, both because it allows some emotional distance and a lack of moral judgment. It's an ideal vehicle for an anthology piece. But alas, Spielberg is nothing if not a teleological filmmaker, and early on when Albert declares that he will see Joey again, we know exactly where the story is going. It overly simplifies the movie's trajectory and betrays the very fragmentation and insanity the war sequences strive to create.

One can only imagine what Terrence Malick might have done with an animal as his star, and all that that could imply about man's relationship to the natural world and the effects of the battle upon the fields of battle themselves. But Spielberg never even attempts to make such connections, anthropomorphizing Joey to the point that he's barely even a horse so much as a projection of a viewer's own emotions. He's uncannily responsive to language and attuned to human communication in a way that's flatly absurd (for a far more insightful take on that subject, see the amazing documentary Buck about real-life horse-whisperer Buck Brannaman). The situation only worsens when Joey befriends another horse, essentially making an army buddy who he saves on multiple occasions no matter how absurd. In the moment when Joey, somehow sensing that his horse-friend won't be able to pull a yoke tied to a piece of artillery, literally volunteers for the job, the movie tips all the way into silliness. Are we really expected to take this seriously, right alongside graphic war footage, to be both somber about grim reality but leavened by childish fantasy?

Ultimately, that's War Horse's great failing. Spielberg is able to recreate real-world horrors with startling authenticity, but his redemptions are so thoroughly unbelievable that they ring hollow, like promises neither the speaker nor the listener believe to be true.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.