Monday, January 2, 2012

War Horse (Review)

BRIEFLY: War Horse is a masterpiece of staggering emotional proportions. It’s quite simply one of the best films of the year. There’s nothing necessarily groundbreaking here, the camera work, cinematography, plot, etc. are nothing new in the least bit, but with legendary director Steven Spielberg behind the lens every moment feels like magic—and not the crummy Criss Angel type. Indeed, Spielberg does little more than gun for our hearts but boy does he get us. In this way War Horse might be described as the most manipulative film in recent memory. Not that that is a bad thing, but every moment of the movie is meant to do just that—move us and move us it most certainly does.  There’s really nothing that can be said about a film this flawless that moves both seamless and with such soft-as-satin sentimentality. It’ll definitely have you clinging for some Kleenex and hugging those you love a little tighter. You. Must. See. War Horse.  

DETAILED REVIEW: A couple years ago when Spielberg announced his plans to take the popular stage play War Horse to the big screen, you could almost hear the collective “meh” from film fans spanning the globe. I was one of those fans and remember saying, “Seriously this is the best Spielberg can do?” Indeed the man behind E.T., Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Minority Report, Jaws, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Catch Me If You Can was tackling a stage play? And we’re supposed to be thrilled? Yet there I was standing in a theatre lobby stunned by the two hour journey Spielberg had whisked me away on. Boy, did I feel silly doubting him; kinda like Lindsay Lohan after she turned down a role in The Hangover because she surmised it wasn’t a “bankable” film. In the end, it’s Spielberg with the last laugh and likely Oscar gold to boot.   

War Horse is a film with a scope the breadth of the Titanic (both the ship and Kate Winslet’s “goods”) that feels at least a partial paean to the Hollywood films of yore—the so-called golden age. It’s got the deep spirit of adventure like Lawrence of Arabia, the prismatic cinematography of Ben Hur, and the drama of Gone with the Wind. It’s grander, at least in scale and scope, than any of Spielberg’s films aside from maybe Saving Private Ryan. There’s so many truly beautiful shots that it’s hard to single out just one, but the opening sequence which showcases breathtaking granite studded Britain vistas is truly remarkable. We immediately are taken back by a film that promises to emotionally wrestle us and does so again in part due to the overwhelming scope.

The story of War Horse is again nothing new. We are not shocked when the underdog horse affectionately named Joey plows a rocky field he shouldn’t be able to plow. Nor are we surprised when he is hauled off into a far-flung war in despite his owner’s wishes. We are also not stunned when tragedy strikes Joey and all hope is lost. Surprising—no. Shocking—Absolutely not. Are we Touched, without a doubt. We feel so deeply what happens that we almost become the myriad of characters the courageous Joey finds along his way. It’s really not the story of a horse, but the tale of a people—or more specifically us.

The acting throughout is absolutely wonderful yet there isn’t one “stand-out” performance. The acting duties are rather spread out equally over a sprawling and diverse ensemble. Spielberg has a deft eye for picking actors and actresses who accurately convey humanity. So much so, that you don’t feel like you’re watching “acting” at all. There’s literally every emotion on screen at one point or another. You’re utterly arrested by these characters who suffocate you with the lush panorama of emotions they each portray.

Earlier I mentioned that War Horse is a manipulative film, and I won’t back down from that. Spielberg goes for the poignant jugular in seemingly every frame of this two hour epic onslaught. By the end it’s draining but in a good way. In fact I cried not once, but twice—and yes then again in the car. It stirs within so many conflicting feelings that it’s hard to decipher exactly why you’re crying at all.

In the end, War Horse is exactly the film I didn’t think Spielberg would make at least at this juncture in his already illustrious career. Yet, War Horse has completely swept America off its collective feet and also simultaneously catapulted itself to the top of the Best Picture Oscar race—yes it is truly THAT good.


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