I am working my way through the Oscar nominees I have not seen and recently viewed "War Horse." Best picture? Really? Better than "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," which did not get a best-pic nomination? Better than "Drive"? "The Ides of March"? Better than Harry Potter?
I think not.
I will explain after the jump.
There's a stretch of about 20 minutes late in War Horse where all its labors finally add up to something, when the expected emotional impact is what you would expect from a deeply felt Steven Spielberg movie. The stretch includes suffering, and redemption (both for horses and humans), and unbearably gorgeous lighting and images. But even that stretch is followed by a stretched-out finale tying up every possible loose end before going to another gorgeously lit scene, this one driving home the message that "War Horse" is Spielberg's take on "The Searchers" -- but with a much less melancholy ending. (There are times, to be sure, when the horse seems to be standing in for John Wayne, but others where the horse is Natalie Wood.)
Indeed, "War Horse" is about as thorough an homage to John Ford as Spielberg has tried to date, in its visuals and in a narrative that is as interested in character-driven digressions as it is in a formal plot. But it is also overlong, both as an entire movie and in individual scenes. Spielberg's love of a grand screen beauty is at odds with the content of the film; the horrors of battle are too bright, too colorful, even when individual parts are a mess. And the point about the end of 19th-century pastoralism and the emergence of mechanized destruction is made again and again, to the point that the horse's battles with machines become numbing -- until the violence of modern warfare becomes pointedly specific.
As you may already know, "War Horse" -- based on a book by Michael Morpurgo -- involves a boy's love of a marvelous horse, his constant attempts to keep the horse in his life, and both the boy's and the horse's descents into the battlefields of World War I. The horse is a powerful character, demonstrating the values of loyalty and determination which men are struggling to maintain in the middle of their blood-spattered, mud-caked hells. Indeed, the horse is miraculous in its effect on the people it encounters; by example and personality it brings out the best in humanity.
Of course, that goes along with the message about life versus machines, about old values against the decline of the new, about the use of imagery from our greatest American western to talk about the machine age's assault on ideals from the Old West. As should be clear, I was not immune to the force of Spielberg's filmmaking, at least for that one stretch. But too often I found myself watching the clock, or wondering why the frame had to be so very, very pretty, or thinking about how much better some scenes could have been cut. "War Horse" has been praised by some as a great example of old-fashioned filmmaking. But in tone and tale it does not really stand up against the old masters, or against more Oscar-worthy films from 2011.