Review: Spielberg’s ‘War Horse’ offers big emotional beats in a simple story

Steven Spielberg’s films are events at this point, even when he tries to go low-key, simply by virtue of who he is and what he’s done.

Even if I wanted to, I’m not sure I could ever shut myself off from Spielberg’s films.  His voice as a filmmaker is a crucial part of the DNA that made me into the film fan that I am today.  Early viewings of “Jaws,” “Duel,” “Close Encounters,” and “Raiders” hardwired me to his particular emotional vocabulary, and watching his evolution over the course of my life has been fascinating.  Even if you ignore his work as a producer, his contribution to film has been rich and varied, and he’s managed to remain dead center in the mainstream for longer than almost any director I can name.

It’s been three years since his last film, the decidedly mixed bag of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull,” and six years since his last non-sequel, “Munich.”  Now, we’ve got two very different new Spielberg films within a week of one another.  There’s “The Adventures Of Tintin,” which I reviewed earlier, and which I think is one of the most unfettered examples of his imagination as a filmmaker, breathless fun and invention.  He’s also the director of “War Horse,” a sprawling and intentionally old-fashioned adaptation of the novel by Michael Morpurgo, and his sensibilities are on display in a way that should prove pleasing to most viewers while driving his harshest critics up a wall.

Spielberg is unabashedly sentimental, and always has been.  When people call him “manipulative” and act like that’s an insult, it suggests that they miss the point of his work and, more importantly, that they don’t understand the basics of film vocabulary.  Of course he’s manipulative.  The moment you take two shots and cut them together, you are manipulating for a certain effect.  The very nature of film is manipulation.  We use score and cinematography and performance to create certain responses in an audience, and that’s filmmaking.  Spielberg gets called out for it because of the surgical skill he applies to the fine art of making audiences weep, but when you buy a ticket for a movie like “War Horse,” that’s exactly what you’re signing up for, and it seems silly to beat him up for it.

The film deals with the relationship between Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey.  It’s a sprawling story that uses the background of World War I as a framework, but it’s really a very direct journey.  Albert’s father (Peter Mullan) buys a horse, Albert falls in love with it, WWI begins, the horse is sold to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), and Albert decides to enlist so he can find his horse and keep him safe.  The film follows Joey from owner to owner, using the horse’s journey as a way of dipping into a number of stories along the way, and eventually reaching a rousing and nakedly tear-jerking finale.  It is an episodic film, and how you feel about the movie as a whole will depend largely on whether or not you are moved by the various stops along the way.

Make no mistake… the star of this movie is Spielberg himself.  After all, the main character in his film is a horse that never speaks, which means Spielberg’s visual vocabulary is what allows us to understand the horse’s emotional journey.  Spielberg’s greatest collaborators, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, are back as well, and at this point, I have a feeling the three of them could make the opening of an envelope into an overwhelming emotional experience if they wanted to do so.  Spielberg knows this is a big canvass movie, a film that plays big and broad and without a subtle bone in its body.  He draws influence from John Ford and David Lean here, and he approaches the war sequences in a way that’s very different than his acclaimed work on “Saving Private Ryan.”  The film is never graphic, but it is often harrowing thanks to the way Spielberg suggests without being explicit.  The screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis is fairly linear, and if I have an issue with the film, it is the way the human characters just sort of blow by, very few of them making any real impression.  They are stops along the way, not fully-realized people, and it’s hard to invest in them as a result.

Still, Spielberg has put together a strong cast here.  Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan… so many strong performers, all of them doing their very best to quickly suggest these people and the way they fit into the world that Spielberg’s painting here.  I confess that I am not a huge fan of Janusz Kaminski’s work with Spielberg over the years.  I like some of the films he’s shot, but I also get irritated by some of his choices, and I think his work is often showy in a way that does not inform the film.  Here, he’s working with a bolder, richer palette than normal, and his work absolutely sets this in the context of the big Hollywood epics of the past.

The film could play well to older children and to families, and I suspect it will be a major commercial hit.  There is a very simple, uncomplicated emotional punch to it, and while I don’t think it’s especially deep, it is often lovely, and I think the simplicity actually works for it.  This has been a year with some very dense, complicated pictures, many of which I loved, but Spielberg has always been about trying to reach every member of the audience.  “War Horse” is not one of my personal favorites of his films, but it is absolutely a Spielberg film, and his instincts for how to move an audience have never been more finely tuned than they are now.

“War Horse” opens everywhere on Christmas Day.