Wednesday, January 4, 2012

War Horse (Steven Spielberg) **1/2

There are few directors that have managed the combination of beautiful visual imagery and heartbreaking human emotion as well as Steven Spielberg. Films like ET, The Color Purple, AI, Schindler's List, and Saving Private Ryan are great examples of this. Spielberg's latest film War Horse once again demonstrates this skill with many memorable moments. The problem is that the moments in between are bland and generic, and the poorly structured story prevents War Horse from the greatness it so desperately seeks to achieve.

The film is based on a novel by Michael Mopurgo, which was later adapted into a theater production that won the Tony award for Best Play.. It tells the story of a remarkable horse named Joey who is bought at a auction by a struggling farm family. Teenage son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) works hard to train the horse and it begins to turn the family's fortunes around. With World War 1 looming, the family is forced to sell Joey to the military and he goes on a long journey, encountering both sides of the war and leaving a lasting impression on everyone he meets.

The most stunning relationship in the film is between two horses. While training for the military, Joey meets another horse named Topthorn. Without any dialogue, Spielberg develops a complete and thoroughly memorable relationship between the two horses.  One of the greatest moments in the film is when Joey volunteers to take a heavy load up a hill, knowing Topthorn probably will fall just like the previous horse did. This relationship is more well drawn and memorable than anything involving any of the human characters.

Everything in between these scenes between the two horses, especially scenes that don't involve Joey at all, fails to work up any dramatic momentum whatsoever. A major problem is episodic structure of the film that fails to give us enough time with the human characters Joey comes across. This is the 2nd film this year (Ides of March) adapted from a play that clearly suffers from such structure. The soldier that rides Joey in the war, a father and daughter that encounter him, and even Joey's owner who predictably ends up going to war himself are just not given enough screen time develop in a way to really care about them.

In a way, the film is both too long and too short. It's too long in the sense that the human scenes really begin to drag.  But it's also too short in the sense that with a longer running time Spielberg could've developed the human characters more. He's never been one to reinvent the wheel when it comes to storytelling as most of his films are formulaic and borrow from other sources. What makes Spielberg's best stories stand out are the fascinating characters he delivers to us. Other than Joey and Topthorn, there are no such characters in this film and thus these human segments just fall flat.

Spielberg is at least still in top notch technical form. Period details are convincing. Many of the battlefield set pieces are suitably exciting. He brings along John Williams once again for another majestic score. The cinematography is astonishing. The film's final shot is especially unforgettable, and perhaps one of the best of Spielberg's career. It's just too bad that so much of the film fails to deliver. I'll remember the horses and not much else.

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