Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Reel Review: WAR HORSE

It can be argued that Steven Spielberg has not put together a knockout of a film since his 1998 WWII tale SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. Since then there have been noble efforts and outright disasters, all suffering some the same common problem of no real heart or emotion. A mediocre Spielberg can be better than most of the blockheads out there making movies these days, but the world has been missing the old Steven; the one that makes us laugh and cry all in one sitting. In his adaptation of WAR HORSE, Spielberg returns to the battlefronts of world war…and remembers to leave the Tin Man behind.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a teen growing up in England just before the outbreak of WWI. His father Ted (Peter Mullan) and his mother Rose (Emily Watson) are about to lose their farm to their heartless landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). Ted purchases and young and spirited colt to help plow the fields and Albert forms an instant bond with the animal. The horse, named Joey, is eventually sold to the military when WWI breaks out. Albert enlists in the army himself, with the hopes of one day reuniting with his beloved horse.

WAR HORSE is an emotional journey right from the get-go. Joey and Albert’s bond is heartwarming and never feels corny or cliché. The early pressure of the family losing the farm and all that they have rest upon Joey and Albert’s belief in him, and it’s easy to get caught up in the drama and root for them both to succeed.

When the war arrives and separates the two, the film hits a whole new gear. The heartbreak Albert endures in losing his friend gut wrenching, but WAR HORSE is at its best when focusing on the adventures of Joey. Joey is eventually separated from his unit, and goes through a series of owners across the countryside throughout the war. The many people he meets feels episodic, but it works very well as the common thread of survival keeps things from becoming disjointed. Joey’s encounters bring him to both sides of the battle lines; at one point he is in the hands of the German army…the same unit that is firing upon Albert’s unit in the trenches.

Spielberg’s direction has not been this finely tuned in a long time. Every shot is composed beautifully; looking very much like a great work of art. WAR HORSE has a classic look and feel to it, and it overall feels timeless. The real triumph is the great “acting” that is done with Joey and the many other horses present; the actions and deeds the cast of horses must perform are amazing to see, (how do you get fifty horses to all look in the same direction at the same time?) and Spielberg finds ways to weave them into the story seamlessly; it never feels like a circus act.

Spielberg also manages to find ways for the audience to connect instantly with Joey; just one simple shot of the horse just makes wonder what he his thinking. All of this is brilliantly brought together by a GREAT score by John Williams.

There are great performances in WAR HORSE, with the bulk of the human credit going to Jeremy Irvine; His connection and emotion with Joey is very convincing. The supporting cast is also very good; from the many German and allied soldiers to the quaint villagers that Joey encounters.

WAR HORSE has many other storylines going other than Joey and Albert being separated by war, and each plotline comes together neatly and powerfully at the end. Spielberg has found a very good story in WAR HORSE, and he made it his own while giving us reasons to care; enough reasons to have us all reaching for the tissues more than once. WAR HORSE is a bittersweet tale; one of the best Steven has given us in a long time.

Welcome back, Steven.


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