Usually once a year a film comes along that I find utterly despicable. These films usually come from exceptionally talented directors, and are so manipulative and ridiculous that they show an utter disdain for the audience.
They use masterfully constructed framing as well a deep understanding of what a motion picture is capable of in order to attack us where we are most vulnerable, and offer no reward for their exploits.
Previous motion pictures of this ilk are films such as Titanic or Forrest Gump. Both play upon a sense of cultural nostalgia, each is set in fantasy versions of times past. One taps into our affinity for young doomed love, while the other presents us with a heroic and lovable simpleton. Each film leaves little room for interpretation as the message is rhythmically drummed into our skulls.
These films are excessively praised, because, like high fructose corn syrup, we have become addicted to their synthetic sweetness and total lack of substance.
The newest of this brand of movies has arrived.
War Horse is the latest in a long line of cinematic atrocities that director Steven Spielberg has forced upon us. It, like the aforementioned Titanic and Forrest Gump, also uses a puffed up cultural nostalgia to push along its story. It glorifies a war that is now roughly a century old, but it also employs the lowest of blows, the anthropomorphic animal.
I was originally going to go scene by scene through the film, but have thought better of it for two reasons. First, it would ruin the film for those out there that may find some small joy in it, and second it would be far too much time and effort wasted on a movie that does not deserve it.
The horse, Joey, gets sent off to fight in World War I. His owner, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) soon follows, and we watch as both of these innocents have adventures and get brutalized by the war they are stuck in.
The premise itself is ridiculous, at each turn the successes of both the horse and his boy are beyond belief, and made me question what I was watching. If this was a fantasy or fairytale, who was it for? The awkward musical motifs for each of the farm animals had a clunky Peter and the Wolf feel to them and often highlighted already blatant points.
Is this a movie for children?
I would offer that War Horse exemplifies the problem that comes with making a movie for everyone. By cramming all of these disparate elements into a single motion picture, they begin to conflict with each other. If it’s too violent for children and too heavy-handed and stupid for adults, then who should see this film?
I would suggest that no one should.
War Horse is a film for no one.
It has capable actors. Jeremy Irvine’s performance is fine. The entire cast, from Emily Watson to Peter Mullan to David Thewlis, is good. Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as a French grandfather and granddaughter give excellent performances that are subtle and nuanced, but all of these actors are employed on a project that is misguided at its source.
It has well-constructed frames that Spielberg lifts almost directly from directors like Victor Fleming, John Ford and David Lean. Perhaps Spielberg thought that because his protagonist was a farmer from the British Isles he should have a handful of Gone With the Wind references, but as with his indecision about his audience, Spielberg never settles upon a style for his film.
It is never fully the lavish war epic of Fleming, nor does it have the stern characters and majestic wide shots of Lean, nor the stark emotional and visual contrast of Ford. Spielberg wants to be all of these directors at the same time and because of that, he is none of them.
When I finished this film I was angry. I was angry that I had been subjected to over two hours of some of the most manipulative filmmaking I have seen. I was angry about Spielberg’s apparent arrogance, which results in this hot mess of styles and tone. I’m sure I will continue to be angry as praise is heaped upon this film.
I’m most upset by the fact that Spielberg has legitimate talent as illustrated by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Empire of the Sun. He could be a wonderful and benevolent member of what is now the old guard of contemporary cinema. Instead he is a super-intelligent evil cinematic villain, which the newer guard of directors should destroy.
Go watch War Horse if you must, then get angry and go watch something really great.