There was a time when sitting in front of a glowing box and reading other people's writings about moving pictures was something out of a science fiction radio play that you could only hear after you had spent 12 hours tending to your land, getting filthy, hoping for the best, and eating a ton of carbs since that's all you had to survive. War Horse is set in those days, back during the least sexy of the world wars, which is WWI. Steven Spielberg directed this adaptation probably because it's a perfect holiday storm of subjects: kids, war, and animals. I hope that someone at Kleenex saw this as an opportunity to cross-promote.
The movie raised a huge question for me: even though I know I am being manipulated, does it make it any less effective? Here, the answer is no. Even though the film is overly long and wants to make you cry so bad that it has more endings than Return of the King, it still succeeded in spite of my brain's protests. In fact, my theater sounded like a sick ward in Contagion with all the people sniffling and quietly sobbing. Everything about this movie broadcasts hard work: the horse works hard, the characters work hard, and even the movie itself works hard. The atmosphere is so rich that you can smell the soil under your fingernails and feel your heart break in two at every hardship. Apparently in the book, Joey the horse narrates the tale, but screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis turned it into a traditional story where only humans talk. Of course this choice is the expected route to generate the most predictable reaction, but it also positions it better for awards season. It's only one example of how these guys are professionals and we are at their mercy.
Putting animals in movies is usually a lay-up because we project onto them whatever we're tricked into believing we're watching (a shot of a dog laying down is funny or sad when paired with the right music). I don't know if I've just gulped down the Kool Aid or what, because man, is Joey the war horse a magnificent steed or what? He is first broken by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), then sold into war to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), captured by the Germans, hidden by the French, abused, loved, chased by tanks, and caught in barbed wire. This horse has lived. And he is every bit as hypnotizing, charming, and strong as everyone in the film says he is. Now that I read this paragraph back, it's probably just that Spielberg really knows how to make things cute. It even seemed in several places that high-powered HMI lights were being aimed at his coat just the right way to make him shine like a hairy diamond. Dammit.
But regardless, this adventure hits all of the notes that one expects from such highly dramatic, dangerous, and saccharine situations that Joey finds himself in. For all you people exhausted from the holiday, you don't have to lift a mental finger because you are being told how to feel at every turn, especially when the film gets bogged down in the horror and injustice of war. There was only one point where the film had a scene that was so fantastic and well-written that it made me use my brain--two soldiers from opposing sides of the war stand alone, working towards a common goal and delicately maneuver back and forth between small talk and not-so-small talk. Luckily, that scene signaled the end(s) of the film and finally it won my tears in appreciation of all its hard work.
[Minor spoilers] But now there's something serious to discuss, as is the case with more than a few Spielberg pictures--the blown ending. In War of the Worlds it was the magical reappearance of the dead son and in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull it was the flying saucer. Here, it's how Albert returns home from war to what is either the Gone With the Wind set or the lip of an active volcano. Are reunions in overwhelming amber hues meant to evoke even more tears? They should have quit while they were ahead. But we still all got what we came for.