Steven Spielberg hasn’t been a major player in the Oscar game since “Munich” was nominated for best picture and he received a best director nod in 2006. In the five year since, Spielberg re-teamed with his old buddy George Lucas on another “Indiana Jones” adventure (one best forgotten) and spent a good deal of effort giving DreamWorks Studios new life at the Walt Disney Company after an unsuccessful alliance with Paramount. Spielberg’s first directorial effort for the new DreamWorks is “War Horse” and ever since the rights to Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel were acquired the project had the Oscar bait stamp all over it. The film has been finished since late summer when selected long lead press screened it. Over the past few weeks more media found themselves partaking the approximately 2 hour and 20 min epic as well as some random film screening groups that Spielberg personally attended. On Thanksgiving the floodgates opened and guild, Academy and media members all began to bask in the legendary filmmaker’s endeavor. And, surprise, awards season took a turn.
If you’ve seen the acclaimed stage adaptation of “War Horse,” you’ll immediately recognize the story. An English teenager, Albert, trains an impressive thoroughbred, named Joey, his father bought at auction to spite his landlord. Eventually Albert is forced to allow Joey to be acquired by the British Army at the very start of WWI. The rest of the story follows the war through Joey’s eyes and the different people he meets on both sides of the trenches. Fearful for the fate of his horse, Albert eventually enlists and heads to France to find Joey.*
*Having attend the play in London last month, I immediately noticed some subtle and not-so subtle changes that had been made by screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis from the play (and novel) to the film. They aren’t detrimental to the picture, but they seem quizzically arbitrary (cue interview request).
With “War Horse,” Spielberg has fashioned a grand epic that features a very on the nose homage to Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind” and a few tip of the hats to classic John Ford. Anyone expecting Spielberg to revisit the 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” here in a “Great War” setting will be severely disappointed. Instead, Spielberg’s traditional broad sensibility comes into focus in a PG-rated picture that tugs on the heartstrings while trying to convey much of the danger of war and yet avoiding the horrific nature of it. Spielberg actually creates some impressive visual motifs to accomplish this, muting what could have been a very bloody saga at times.
Beyond cinematographer Janus Kaminski’s gorgeous lensing (cue another nomination), Spielberg’s most impressive collaborator on the picture may be one of his oldest, John Williams. The five-time Oscar winner delivers his most inspired score in almost a decade. Williams’ work recalls Aaron Copland (a longtime influence) and delivers, at times, what sounds like one of his most sophisticated work for the silver screen. It’s not hyperbole to suggest Williams could end up winning his sixth Academy Award for this one (although if he couldn’t win for “Harry Potter” – twice – anything is possible).
Curiously, the buzz on “War Horse” initially wasn’t so kind. Scuttlebutt said it was too long, sappy and – the dreaded – “cheesy” at times. But, that’s not the case in this pundit’s view. For the most part at least. Yes, a good 15 minutes could have been cut without affecting the story and only a truly cold heart won’t shed a tear after one of four emotional beats at the end of the film (or was that five? I lost count). But, these are reasons why Spielberg could find himself with another best director Oscar. He accomplishes this dance with the audience so well it’s hard to fault how possibly calculated it is. Because, when it comes down to it, if you’re looking for a good tearjerker that leaves you feeling like you’ve gone on an epic adventure than Spielberg is going to do everything in his power to deliver (hopefully with a surprise or two).
In terms of the best picture race, as anticipated, “War Horse” is a major player. In fact, by the time it opens wide on Christmas “War Horse” may be significantly out in front of other contenders “The Artist” and “The Descendants” for the win. All three films will be nominated, but you can bet a majority of Academy members will fall for a film that delivers so powerfully in the final act. There are a couple of factors that could affect this, of course. No one has seen Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud or Incredibly Close” yet (though that should happen soon) and critics’ awards could fuel “The Descendants” or, sigh, the incredibly overrated “Hugo” in some manner. Alexander Payne’s dramedy has a shot, but “War Horse’s” arrival will be tough for the silent wonder “The Artist.” Both “Horse” and “Artist” harken to films of yesteryear, but “Horse” does so on a much more grand and emotional canvas. Could the nomination be the win for “The Artist”? Time will tell.
Historically, DreamWorks has to have one significant concern if they really hope to win the best picture Oscar, the lack of an acting nomination. It’s incredibly rare for a best picture winner to win without at least one actor from the film being nominated as well. Although, it has happened twice in the last decade with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” Before that, you have to go back to “The Last Emperor” in 1988 to find any winner without actor recognition (don’t forget, it’s the largest branch of the Academy). In “War Horse’s” case, newcomer Jeremy Irvine is fine as Albert, but he’s not worthy of a best actor nomination. The only supporting performance among the ensemble that really has time to resonate is Niels Arestrup (“A Prophet”) as a farmer trying to protect his granddaughter from German Army plunderers. Can he crack a very competitive best supporting actor field? That’s going to be tough. Unless the Academy adds a best animal performance category, “War Horse” may come up empty on that end. Just something to consider after nominations are announced on Jan. 26.
Lastly, one additional reason Spielberg may find himself in the winner’s circle for director again is because of his double dip of critically acclaimed films this season. “War Horse” will receive very good reviews (especially from those who worship at the altar), but the raves are already in for his motion-capture animated adaptation of Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” And if that film is nominated in the best animated picture race as anticipated (an award that is accepted by the director), it could be a Spielberg fest on Oscar night.
Do you think any film can overtake “War Horse” for best picture? Share your thoughts below.
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