Spielberg pushes ‘War Horse’ to winning form

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, December 23, 2011 1:48pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Moment for moment, Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” probably contains as many grace notes and directorial coups as any movie this year.

Spielberg knows how to find the little things that count: the muscular look and sound of a plow as it breaks through hard soil, for instance, or the way a few dozen horses jerk their heads in unison at the ring of a rifle shot.

All of which makes me want to like “War Horse,” a big, sweeping epic from the David Lean school, a little more than I actually did. This project is based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, which has recently found success in a stage production.

The movie follows a horse, from birth to training to service during the first World War. The horse is named Joey by its youthful trainer, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), whose sharecropper father (Peter Mullan) badly overbid to buy the horse for his farm in England.

The movie spends quite a bit of time on the class conflict between the father and the local landowner (David Thewlis), but then drops that thread entirely.

After being conscripted for service in the war by a sympathetic British captain (Tom Hiddleston), Joey’s experiences in battle take unexpected turns, leading to a shattering event in No Man’s Land between the trenches.

Spielberg confidently moves from one episode to the next, as we leave behind human characters and stick with Joey. The humans are played by fine actors, including Emily Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch (currently onscreen in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), but Joey is the star.

The film’s beautiful to look at. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski know how to capture a certain heft, a way of seeing, that leaves no doubt we are watching an epic story from the first moments of the movie.

Just watching this kind of old-fashioned movie is pleasurable: a calm, sincere story with big ideas. It’s the kind of thing that is completely out of fashion in an era of “Transformers”-sized blockbusters. Of course, Spielberg was a producer on that franchise, so he’s partly to blame.

Something at the center of “War Horse” keeps it from becoming a great one; maybe it’s having a mute animal as the hero, or maybe it’s Spielberg’s insistence on making every scene pumped full of production value.

If it falls short, though, I still enjoyed the film. It’s not unlike something a big studio might have made in the late 1940s, a tradition-of-quality kind of title that provides a lush experience. In a “Transformers” world, I’ll take it.

“War Horse” (3 stars)

Steven Spielberg directs this tale of a horse, from its humble farm beginnings to service during the first World War. Spielberg can do a sweeping epic like nobody else alive and the movie has its distinct pleasures, even if it might seem a little over-directed at times.

Rated: PG-13, for violence, subject matter

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