There is no doubt that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever lived. Love him or hate him, his body of work speaks for itself. I adore Spielberg's films, but honestly, have not been impressed by his work in the twenty-first century...until now. War Horse is destined to be a classic. Based on a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, and the Tony Award winner for Best Play; War Horse is the tale of a magnificent stallion named Joey, and his journey through the horror of World War One. War Horse is a bookend to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. That film was brutal, fiercely so, providing an unvarnished look at D-Day. War Horse is subtle, relying on emotional attachment and the true innocence of a beloved animal. Anyone, from a child to an old man, will be able to watch this movie and understand what war really is. Joey is the perfect foil. Poetic, thrilling, heartwrenching; War Horse is a tremendous movie experience. Spielberg has made his finest film in a decade, and maybe the best film of 2011.
War Horse opens in 1914 with Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) seemingly making a big mistake. Instead of buying a plow horse for his hardscrabble farm, he buys a beautiful colt. This decision enrages his wife, Rose (Emily Watson), who fears the family will starve and lose everything. But it thrills his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who swears to his parents that he'll turn the colt into a fine plow horse. Albert names his colt Joey, trains him up, and becames inseperable...until the outbreak of war. The village lads scramble to sign up to fight for King and country. Ted, scarred by the Boer war, is forced to sell Joey to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). The family needs the money and England needs horses. Furious, Albert swears that he and Joey will be together again. He makes a pact with Captain Nicholls to return his horse after war, maybe by Christmas, as the war will be very quick. Unfortunately for Joey and Albert, the war is not quick, but a long, tragic conflict that kills millions of people and horses.
Joey is the primary character in War Horse. The film does not see the world through a horse's eyes. We are along for its journey. The audience follows Joey through a perilous time. But the horse is extraordinary, taught to be something special and loved from its days on the farm with Albert. As characters come and go, as time passes, everyone who interacts with Joey understands that it is a unique creature. This understanding is shared by friends and enemies, resulting in a climactic scene that is so moving and beautiful, I wept like a schoolgirl cutting onions. Spielberg hits a home run, out of the park, out of the parking lot, with this scene. It is so magnificently staged, I thought about its meaning for hours afterwards. This epiphaneous moment will roll like waves over audiences. It takes War Horse to a crescendo of meaning that will be understood by all. Spielberg is truly a master storyteller for pulling this off so well.
From a filmmaking aspect, War Horse ticks all boxes. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is jaw dropping. From the farm, to the battlefield, every frame is exquisite. The score by John Williams is also excellent, not Star Wars great, but damn good. The visual effects and editing team will be up across all awards categories. Everyone on Spieberg's crew came to bat for this film, and clearly put their best work forward. I particularly liked how the film ended; how it looked, how it felt. It's almost like the last note in a symphony lingering to the right moment of silence.
I got in a very heated debate with a fellow critic who thought War Horse was too sentimental and manipulative. I categorically refute that. There are times when you have to be sentimental, when the emotional weight of a scene must be milked until every eye is crying a river. Why? Because if you're saying something meaningful, then by all means, pour it on. Art is wasted on triviality. I truly believe that all audiences that see War Horse will walk out of the film completely in tune to Spielberg's message. Yes, a few jaded wankers will claim there's a heavy hand, but let's not let cynicism rule the day. War Horse is a great film, worthy of taking the family to the theater on Christmas Day.