Yesterday, I reviewed the first entirely motion-capture film that Steven Spielberg ever directed. Today, I'm reviewing another Spielberg movie, except this one is a live-action war movie designed to be tearjerking Oscar bait. Needless to say, this movie is a bit further into the auteur's wheelhouse. It's also a huge disappointment. War Horse tells the story of Joey, a thoroughbred who comes of age in England during World War I. It's also the story of Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), the boy who named, raised, and trained Joey. As such, you might expect this to be a standard "boy and his dog" story, in which Albert and Joey go into WWI together and help each other grow. That's not what happens, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's take it from the top.
At roughly the five-minute mark, we're introduced to Joey as he's sold at auction. He's won by Albert's father (Ted Narracott, played by Peter Mullan), who bids higher than he can afford. Ted knows that bidding so high was stupid and all his friends quite vocally remind him of this, but Albert does it anyway because he's stubborn, he's drunk, and he wants to show up his landlord (Lyons, played by David Thewlis). So naturally, Ted is now unable to pay his rent, and he only has a few months to come up with the money. And the film expects us to root for Ted.
No. Absolutely not. I say thee, neigh (Sorry.). There is no way I'm empathizing with this idiot who drove himself into the ground for no reason. Furthermore, if a movie is forcing me to choose between a cartoonishly evil bastard and a stubbornly drunken idiot, then fuck the movie and fuck them both.
The first act of this movie really tested my patience. The conflict is stock, the characters are two-dimensional, and every line uttered is a cliche. It certainly isn't for lack of trying (David Thewlis and Emily Watson are both proven, solid talents), but these characters are so cardboard and the screenplay so shitty that the actors are given nothing to work with. Jeremy Irvine gets an especially raw deal, since Albert makes for such an extremely BORING protagonist. The sole bright spot was Joey, who was blessed with more character development and better acting than all the human actors put together.
Anyway, my hopes were heightened considerably with the start of the second act. At this point, Albert tearfully watches as Joey is sold off to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who's going into the war effort alongside Major Jamie Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch). Not only were these characters far more interesting than the ones we just left, but Hiddleston and Cumberbatch are both actors more than talented enough to deliver good performances in spite of the screenplay. So naturally, they leave the movie fifteen minutes later and never come back. Joey moves on to another new set of owners, and the movie's two best bipedal actors are left by the wayside. FAIL.
By now, you may be noticing a pattern. The entire movie is comprised of so many plotlines that Joey just drifts in and out of. Very few of the storylines get much more than fifteen minutes apiece, which means that the characters involved are all woefully underdeveloped. None of the arcs have much of a beginning, some of them lack a proper ending, and those plotlines that do have endings usually end badly. So not only are these characters stock, two-dimensional, badly-written and cliched, but they're all disposable as well!
To be fair, I must admit that this movie has its strong points. For starters, the score is of John Williams' usual sterling quality and it does a fantastic job of pulling a violin bow across the heartstrings. Additionally, the movie is gorgeous, with superb visuals and editing. There are a few war scenes in particular that are absolutely captivating in how immersive and gritty they are. Not nearly as bloody or effective as Saving Private Ryan, I grant you, but it's great work all the same.
Then there's Joey. According to Wikipedia, Joey was played by no less than fourteen different horses. And they all deserve honorary Oscars. This was the only character in the film that I could emotionally invest in, and so much of that is due to the staggering performances coaxed out of these horses. Without a single subtitle or line of dialogue, this equine character could communicate its thoughts and emotions every bit as well as any human. It's absolutely jaw-dropping.
(Side note: An animatronic horse was used for the more dangerous stunts, and I honestly couldn't spot the difference. Also -- for those who care -- the American Humane Society had a representative on set at all times, and they labelled the production's animal care "outstanding.")
Unfortunately, though Joey does play some part in most every scene of the movie, he still plays second fiddle to the humans. Hell, there's a lengthy trench warfare scene at the 90-minute mark, and Joey has absolutely nothing to do with it. This might not be such a bad thing, except that -- again -- most of the human characters disappear after only a few minutes. This is a movie that chooses to develop a dozen characters partway instead of developing one or two characters completely, to the detriment of all involved. The sole exception is Albert, who plays a recurring role throughout the proceedings, but he's no more interesting or memorable for it.
This movie tries for some degree of thematic depth and emotional manipulation, but it completely rings hollow. The theme of bravery is mentioned, but the characters just prattle on about the subject without actually saying anything of importance. It is rather interesting that Joey can find equal amounts of empathy and cruelty on both sides of the war, but the film stops just shy of making a point about it. So we all love horses and horses love kind owners, regardless of political affiliation. So what of it?
As for the emotional manipulation, this movie fails hard. There are way too many scenes in this film that are just plain stupid, ranging from impossible to improbable. They aim to warm the heart, but they only succeeded at irritating my stomach. To be fair, I can forgive the movie for granting Joey such a tremendous amount of speed, strength, and stamina. That's a standard "buy" in movies like these. But then came the climax and the resolution, in which so many people act like bleeding hearts to such a ridiculous degree that I didn't know whether to gag or to scream "bullshit!"
In hindsight, I must admit that these screenplay failings were probably inevitable. After all, of the movie's two credited screenwriters, one of them was Lee Hall, whose sole notable prior credit is Billy Elliot. The other is Richard Curtis, known for such film romances as Bridget Jones' Diary, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually. And these two were tasked with writing a war movie. That's sort of like hiring a couple of florists to be Fox News anchors.
War Horse is a big chunk of fool's gold. The film is very nicely produced, with masterful visuals, a fantastic score, and a great amount of awe-inspiring equine performances. Unfortunately, the filmmakers chose to structure this film as a sort of anthology, and they really sucked at it. The characters are built, used and disposed of as if they were cardboard cutouts, and the admittedly talented actors are treated likewise. There's absolutely no reason to grow attached to the human characters, which makes all their screen time boring, their development non-existent, and the attempted tear-jerking pretentious.
War movie fans might consider this worth a rental, so they can fast-forward to the battle scenes. No one else should waste the time or money.