Wednesday, January 18, 2012

704 - War Horse review

Steven Spielberg has said that before he directs a movie, he watches four films: Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” and John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Perhaps in none of his films has this been more obvious than in “War Horse,” an epic war drama that’s both remarkably personable and expansive.

“War Horse” is easily one of the best films of 2011, a majestic work that many of the old masters would have been proud to call their own. Nothing else from 2011 that I’ve seen so stirred my emotions, or made me so yearn for an era of Hollywood long past, where grand films told widely appealing tales that left only those with hearts of stone unmoved.

The story begins in England with the birth of Joey, a thoroughbred, soon to be purchased by Ted (Peter Mullan), a drunken farmer that should be buying a plow horse for his farm. His wife Rose (Emily Watson) is aghast at the waste, but his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) instantly adores the creature. Albert and Joey bond, but soon World War I begins, and Ted sells the horse to the army to be used as an instrument of war. Albert swears that he will be reunited with Joey one day, a vow that seems hard to keep.

After Joey’s shipped over to Europe, he drifts from owner to owner, the narrative introducing us to a number of personalities throughout the war, both military and civilian, English, French, and German. Audiences have now become accustomed to films depicting the harshness of war, in great part thanks to Spielberg’s own “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” but here we’re forced to consider the toll of destruction as wrought upon a noble beast. War in, all its hellishness, seems to engender qualities of heroism and cruelty in large doses, with fear being the only commonality.

With this story Spielberg has found some of his best scenes. Some are idyllic, such as Albert racing an automobile in the countryside, or a French girl attempting to train him to leap. Others are terrifying, such as moments that see horses thrust into the middle of the war, thrown into terror by violence they can’t understand. Perhaps best is a mutual effort between an English and a German soldier to free Joey from a tangle of barbed wire, a strikingly humane moment in the bloodletting of war. The imagery is lush, exciting, breathtaking, startling, and always beautiful, whether it be a ride through a scenic countryside or a muddy, corpse strewn deathtrap between trenches.

The film’s detractors have sneered at Spielberg’s empathetic filmmaking, deriding its heartfelt story as obvious. Leave it to bad critics to label films they don’t like as “manipulative,” as if there was a film in the market that didn’t actively try to stir certain emotional responses with every scene. It’s telling that the lion’s share of this film’s detractors are those who fancy shallow, pretentious analysis, scoffing at classic filmmaking while paying lip service to the efforts of great storytellers.

The fact is, few films of any sort from any era are this good. Spielberg paints with a broad brush emotionally, crafting a picture replete with stark feelings of sadness, terror, and ultimately, joy. Little of “War Horse” couldn’t have been made 60 years ago, and through Spielberg’s impeccable grasp of storytelling and cinematic history, that pays the highest compliment.

5 out of 5

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