Thursday, January 5, 2012

War Horse

Steven Spielberg's War Horse, bears the distinction of being the only film this year to bring me to the brink of mean, ugly, sissy tears.  In the first 30 minutes I began to dread the climax and how it might shatter my masculine front amidst my fellow theater-goers.  With mounting anxiety I found my eyes (particularly my left) filling with a clear salty discharge that could only be one thing.  For much of the movie I succeeded in masking my tears with an infrequent dab of my finger but by the end I had come undone like a patient who had undergone an appendectomy without the use of anesthetic.  The frequency with which I was wiping my eyes had betrayed me to everyone including my wife, but thankfully I wasn't alone.

The story based on the acclaimed novel and pulitzer prize winning play concerns a teenaged boy Albert, who is separated from his horse with the arrival of World War 1 and ultimately enlists in the hopes of both serving his country and reuniting with his equine best friend.  Although this makes it sound impossibly maudlin, this is vintage Spielberg filled with un-jaded optimism, sincerity and imagination.  The fact that it works is a testament to his supreme artistry.  The movie itself is an affirmation of the classic Eisensteinian theory of montage, which states that two disparate pieces of film can give birth to a powerful idea when they are put together in appropriate sequence.  Nobody can so blatantly play to the heart-strings and get away with it like Spielberg for the simple reason that the details ring true.  War Horse doesn't illustrate the horrors of war the way Saving Private Ryan does, nor does it attempt to reduce war to adventure film heroics like the Indiana Jones films.

War Horse approaches the surreal and fantastical aspects of war from the point of view of an inhuman being; a point of view which is alternately humbling, disorienting and disquieting as the horse changes sides (its gifts appropriated by both the Allied and Axis powers).  The fact that individuals on all sides have the empathy to recognize the value of the horse's life and to care for it it is one of the film's many inspirations.  It is indeed bold to tell a story so hopeful and unabashedly sentimental in an age of such pervasive irony and intellectual posturing, but Spielberg pulls it off because he believes in what he's saying and he is remarkably clear-minded in the telling.

The movie unites two of the central themes in Spielberg: the wonder of communication between humans and non-humans and the clash between blind hope and worldly obstacles.  In doing so, Spielberg dares us to accept the quaint idea that each and every living being (including the horse) understands the intrinsic value of a life.  Spielberg is a believer in hope as he has demonstrated countless times.  In War Horse hope is pure.  It is instantly felt when Albert first succeeds in passing a plough harness from around his own neck to that of his horse.  Hope is embodied by the horse himself as he is rescued and cared for by his various benefactors, wisely navigating their various loyalties.  Hope is embodied by the scene in which the wounded horse lies docile as he is rescued from a tangle of barbed wire by an English and German soldier working together.

Technically, the movie is without peer this year.  The images are photographed with astonishing beauty and the use of sound is subtle and immersive.   In evoking the classic films of John Ford and Victor Fleming, War Horse transports the willing and uncynical to a place no brighter than our own where we follow characters who are perhaps more idealistic than we commonly find in our daily lives.  Although the picture is sometimes externally implausible, it achieves a measure of truth through the honest interplay of the characters and the actors who portray them.  Spielberg is a master of the epic because of his ability to contrast such a sweeping backdrop against a keenly observed succession of intimate gestures.  The movie is unashamedly sentimental but I've never believed that sentiment should be a bad thing so long as it is true.  War Horse is one of the best pictures of the year.