Steven Spielberg’s ‘War Horse’ gallops into the Oscar season

The screening procedure on Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” has been an odd, not exactly particular one. I say not particular because it’s not like they’ve been hiding the film. It’s been completed since September and various long leads have gotten a look. Rival publicists have even seen the film and that’s a bit of a rarity this early. And then there’s the “heartland” strategy of doing pop-up screenings around the country for the public, not unlike what Paramount did with “Young Adult.”

So a lot of what we’ve heard has been Joe the Plumber rifling off a LiveJournal entry here or a Tweet there. Others have already written about the film (one outlet, as always, making sure to be extra clear it got a look a few weeks back, as if that is relevant). Readers who caught public screenings have even posted little mini-reviews in the comments section here at In Contention. So an embargo might be tough to hold up. I was given the green light to write, but the goal is to open the movie, so funneling as much coverage to the release date as possible obviously makes sense.

In any case, this isn’t so much a review as an assessment of Oscar potential. But to get the necessary things out of the way first: I really enjoyed “War Horse.” It was fitting that I saw it last night with a belly full of Thanksgiving goodness, because in many ways, it’s the ultimate comfort food movie. I don’t really mean that as a slight, but that’s probably what it sounds like. Let me try to be a little clearer.

The film feels a bit bloated; there are spots that drag in the second act. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are obviously striving for a different sort of visual aesthetic, probably because this is the kind of material Spielberg can knock out in his sleep and they wanted to at least try to mix it up. So there are elements with such high key lighting as to make it feel stagy. But that’s also part of the attempt at nostalgic charm, as there are shots here that recall “Gone with the Wind” or “Lawrence of Arabia,” though more reverentially than anything.

I was choked up frequently. I felt manipulated to that place but I didn’t mind. “War Horse” isn’t a movie that plays in organic emotion. It’s inherently contrived (as all art is, when you really boil it down) but the effect is no less legitimate. The film is PG-13 but seemed to be teetering on the edge of PG, and I think that pushed the director to be a little creative here and there. (I read that a shot of a windmill obscuring a certain beat in one scene has rubbed some wrong, as if it were a cop-out, but I thought it was fine and of a piece with the atmosphere of the film.)

Yet while a handful of moments have that Spielberg touch of crafty visual storytelling, they are few and far between. Often, in fact, “War Horse” doesn’t even feel like a Spielberg effort at all and comes across almost anonymously. It was filmed during the lengthy post-production interim on “The Adventures of Tintin” as the director had some free time on his hands. There were moments I thought you could sense that “time filler” thing. There’s almost something too slick about the film, too easy and not all that challenging to him.

But I still liked it. And the story of the production is Spielberg’s handling of the horses on display, which become fleshed-out characters in their own right, with arcs and emotional beats and relationships of their own. It was really quite something, and ultimately, very moving. Because it speaks to the themes of the film. The anti-war element might feel like a bit of a pulled punch on first analysis, but seeing the brutality from the perspective of Joey (the titular character) puts the horror of war in a perspective unique in the genre. And indeed, there is a no man’s land scene between two soldiers that may or may not have been in the book or play (I haven’t investigated, but it does feel very play-like) that ranks up there with the best of war cinema, for my money.

Anyway, I’ve gone and written more of the “review” stuff than I wanted. The question for most is whether the film is the Oscar horse (no pun intended) many have expected it to be, sight-unseen, since the contracts were signed. And in my opinion, it most certainly is.

Someone wrote recently about how “Midnight in Paris” and “The Artist” should be given real consideration as threats to win the big prize this year because, in a sea of films that don’t exactly play to the frothier emotions, they stand out as, well, nice. “War Horse” gets to be nice and robust all at once, a feel-good yarn about a serious subject matter and a unique bend on anti-war cinema. I mean, let’s face it, we knew what it would be from the moment the trailer hit, and that’s what it is. Either you’ll spark to that or you won’t. It’s a Thanksgiving meal, equal parts nourishing and not.

The ensemble doesn’t really have a particular stand-out worth noting as a play in the acting categories. Emily Watson is gone after the first act (that’s not a spoiler, the narrative just moves away from her). Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston have precious few moments. (I don’t know why Pete Hammond chose to single out the latter because the character is in and out.) David Thewlis and Eddie Marsan are good, but they come and go. And the lead, Jeremy Irvine, can’t really shake his character’s two-dimensionality (we get it, he loves that horse).

The only performances with real meat on their bones come from Peter Mullan, as Irvine’s drunkard father losing his pride one drop at a time, and Niels Arestrup, as a grandfather in France suffering the extraneous effects of war in a homeland. Arestrup, in particular, delivers something special since the last time most saw him he was a terrifying mob man in Jacques Audiard’s brilliant “A Prophet.” Here he’s warm and loving and full of much different emotions. I wish his role had been developed more because he’s a fantastic actor (who we’ll hopefully see more and more) and he could have been in the hunt. He gets a reprise after his section of the film comes and goes (the whole film is almost set up like a series of vignettes), but I don’t know that there’s enough to get voters on board.

The crafts are dazzling, as expected. Particularly the design elements, costumes and sets, are noteworthy. I’m down on the photography because it’s just so wildly uneven and the visual homage thing didn’t really connect. In fact, I really wish Spielberg would consider mixing it up with his DPs. I’m not a Kaminski detractor on principal like some (I like a lot of his work), but I would love for the director to partner up with Allen Daviau or someone else again. The sound design is great, the sound effects nicely integrated in the war sequences, and Michael Kahn’s film editing is creative when it needs to be, but mostly invisible (a compliment).

So with all that in mind, nominations are likely for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (though I wouldn’t be surprised if this missed), Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing (another place it could miss, which would put it’s status as Best Picture frontrunner in question), Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Original Score. (Speaking of which, I thought John Williams’s work here was undercooked, but that appears to be a minority opinion.)

“Can it win?” That’s what everyone is asking, and will continue to ask, no doubt, in the comments section. My opinion: It most certainly can. Will it? Well, we’ll have to see if the season is kind to it. Critics will be mixed on it, I imagine. It won’t get the boost of their awards circuit, but it won’t need it. And really, after last year’s “Social Network” orgy, can we stop overstating the importance of critics’ awards, at least for films that have an eye toward Best Picture? What matters is how the Academy will gauge the film, and I think this will be right up their alley. At the end of the day, it could be a showdown between three feel-good period crafts showcases: “The Artist,” “Hugo” and “War Horse.”

So another contender finally has its moment in the sun this season. Tomorrow night brings sneaks of Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” in advance of its Christmas release, while David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” will begin to screen, I imagine, in a week’s time.

The curtain is dropping fast on 2011.

(Anne and I will talk more about “War Horse” in today’s Oscar Talk, which will drop later this afternoon.)

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

Sign up for Instant Alerts from In Contention!