War Horse conclusively proves two things. First off that director Steven Spielberg, when teamed with now legendary composer John Williams, can still make inhumanly emotionally manipulative movies. And secondly, that being among the most emotionally manipulative movies of the past decade doesn't necessarily make a movie bad. War Horse is the perfect kind of movie for me to review after having announced my top 10 and my worst 5. Not QUITE good enough to break into my top 10, but nowhere near bad enough to fall into my worst 5.
I'm really going to bother reciting too much of the plot. A man buys a horse, his kid gets really into raising it, it impresses all of them, they all get attached. Suddenly, war were declared and the horse is sold to an officer. He's caught up in World War I, and has to survive and find his way home.
In the spirit of being in chronological order, I will say that the first half hour of this film is pretty much pure torture. The dialogue, from beginning to end, is pretty poorly written but it's worst in the first half hour. It's all setting up the characters and their arcs, including for the horse, but it's all so obvious it becomes painful. It keeps setting up obstacles to try and keep the horse away from the boy (insert Narnia reference here) and it's all so bucolic (look it up) it really does start to become boring.
But then something weird happens. Around the half hour/forty five minute mark, when horse finally goes to war, the movie stops trying to be E.T. and starts trying to be Saving Private Ryan, it actually picks up. The film manages to concentrate on it's visuals more than it's dialogue, the horse takes over as the primary character and it really comes alive. Spielberg is playing the 'horrors of war' bit all the way to the hilt, and while that particular aspect would probably benefit from and R-Rating, this part of the film really works and it's easily worth slogging through the shitty parts to get to.
Of course the movie as a whole isn't without it's share of strengths and weaknesses. As I said, the dialogue is pretty poorly written across the board, but the movie wisely shuts up for most of it. The movie is based on a play I've never seen which is based on a book I've never read, so I can't talk too much about the adaptation aspect, but the story seems tailor made to a movie. The best part about the script is how it handles the conflict, managing to portray both sides as equally 'heartless bastards' and 'good people caught up in a stupid war.'
The direction is the highlight of the movie, with beautiful camera work and fantastically shot action sequences. Spielberg's direction is one of the most recognizable among 'mainstream' directors currently working (except Tim Burton, but his is more of brand than a style) and while it's easy to mock how manipulative it is (lord knows I have, and will probably continue to), no one can deny that his signature style seems to suit the story almost a T.
It all comes down to this: One of the best and most impressive setpieces for this film is an extended sequence at the end, where the horse, is finally set free and bolts across No Man's Land in an extended chase sequence. The entire thing is gorgeously shot and set to some of the best work by John Williams in over a decade. It's also shameless emotionally manipulative, but it works so well that I can't bring myself to care. If that sounds like something that you can tear up or cheer during than this movie is definitely for you. And even if not, if someone as cynical as me can get into it, then I'm sure almost anyone can. This one comes recommended.
Elessar is a 21 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he still thinks it's very odd that the best characterized character in this movie is the horse.