Friday, December 30, 2011

War Horse (2011) – Review

Review: War Horse is a good war drama that plays very much as an anti-war piece. The film centers on a young colt, Joey, and his miraculous story/journey during WWI. Director Steven Spielberg is one of the great war drama filmmakers (with films such as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and executively producing Band of Brothers and The Pacific). WWI (the Great War) was a grave war that saw millions of young men full of vim and vigor encounter the absolute bleakness of trench warfare (nine million of them killed). All war is awful, but WWI was particularly devastating due to the technological advancement in weaponry but not troop mobility. Thus, soldiers were often ordered to charge across no man’s land against machinegun, mortar and rifle fire. Spielberg captures the sheer fear, bravery and terribleness of war on the front (though he does not dig too deep into emotional or physical destruction). Like other anti-war films (another WWI examples are Joyeux Noel or All Quiet on the Western Front), soldiers on either side are presented as both good and bad (it being more dependent on the individual character), creating a feeling of ‘why are we fighting when we might be friends in another life’, which is quite powerful. Spielberg uses Joey to show characters across the war, allowing the audience to not take sides but rather see both sides of the conflict as human. The scene that sees a German and British work together (and even strike up a friendship) drives the point home. While the film is only PG-13 and thus as not as graphic as it probably should be, Spielberg does not shy away from the emotional toll the war takes on its characters (however, it is still lighter tonally than it could have been) and does not let the audience off easy either – there is a lot of pain in the film, especially for those who invest in the well-done characters. Another triumph for the film is Spielberg’s ability to make a horse a compelling lead character, carrying the film. While there are many human characters, and an argument can be made for Albert, Joey’s friend and owner, as a lead, Joey is the principal lead and the through line. However, this also may be the great flaw of the film. While Spielberg does his best to make Joey compelling and give him personality (which he does), it is still a horse and not relatable for the audience to the same extent as human characters. Joey’s journey through the war is a great adventure, but when it is over the audience still looks to the human characters for emotional cues, as they are who the audience relates to and cares about. Sure, the audience cares about Joey, but to an extent it is in relation to Albert (or whomever he is with at the time). Thus, the film, while powerful due to the gravity of the war, is a bit hollow in terms of true emotional connection. The characters do not stay with the audience once the film ends. Spielberg also has an almost disastrous tonal issue with the narrative. The first act of the film is not very good at all, mostly due to Spielberg playing it tonally like a sappy heartwarming animal drama/comedy – something that does not work at all in the face of what is going to come. It is almost enough to ruin the film, but acts two and three work quite well and Spielberg gets the tone just right for the film he is setting out to make. War Horse is one of the better WWI pieces, and yet another reminder to just how terrible war is (despite the fact that we as people seem to often forget that), but is hampered by its shortcomings.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steve Spielberg is the master of emotional manipulation, and he is in top form with War Horse. His gift, however, is that the audience does not feel manipulated, rather they buy in to the emotions that Spielberg would like them to feel at any given moment during his film(s) – it is one of the primary reasons he is the great filmmaker he is and his films the masterpieces many of them are. John Williams delivers yet another wonderful score (Joey’s theme may even make it yet another iconic score; hear it at the end of this excellent piece). It is among the best scores of the year. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Rick Carter do beautiful work, getting the look just right. There are a number of breathtaking photographic moments, and Carter’s design work fully immerses the audience. Williams, Kaminski and Carter continue to do phenomenal work for Spielberg picture after picture. War Horse really only has brief encounters with many of its characters, but many of the actors give very good performances. Patrick Kennedy, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch do fine work as British cavalry soldiers, portraying the impact and loss of innocence once the violence begins. Niels Arestrup is quite good and powerful as a man who faces nothing but loss in the war. Celine Buckens, in her first role, maybe steals the film playing Emilie – a young girl who still has nothing but hope for the future even in the face of utter devastation and loss. Jeremy Irvine, also a newcomer, is good as Albert. It is his connection with Joey that makes the audience care about Joey and the film work.

Summary & score: There are many fantastic epics and war epics, and War Horse to a degree is one of them, if only for the weaker elements of the film. 7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment