No director can pull off sentimentality quite like Steven Spielberg. And that’s not an exaggeration. I can’t think of a single movie from the last 5 years that achieves such a blatantly, old-Hollywood feel, playing to our simplest affections for the best kind of good-guys-win, bad-guys-lose stories.
This story, based on a book by the British Michael Morpugo (in turn made into a stage play that won the Tony for Best Play in 2011), follows a thoroughbred horse on his journey across Europe during World War I. He starts with the family of a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) as the family faces hardship in a small English town. The horse and the boy quickly form a close bond as the horse helps the family make ends meet; the boy names him Joey. To compensate for bad farming luck, the father sells the horse to a local soldier (Tom Hiddleston, sincere and inspiring) for use in the war. Thus Joey begins his journey around Europe, changing the lives of the people he encounters.
War Horse is absolutely beautiful, especially in the final scene which evokes a feeling of relief and contentment. Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, build up a simple story with gorgeous scenery and realistic action. No one would accuse the script of subtlety, but the plot trots along at an engaging enough pace.
Let’s say Lasse Halstrom directed this, or Ed Zwick. Both have made good movies in the past, but also some bad ones, and they’re not known for their nuance. War Horse probably would have been unbearable. They would have made it about the horse, and War Horse would have registered with no one, except maybe horse lovers. Spielberg obviously has great respect for horses, but he knows the story isn’t about the horse, it’s about what Joey means to the people he meets, people whose lives are being torn apart by the realities of war. Much like Jurassic Park isn’t about the dinosaurs and Close Encounters isn’t about the aliens. The horse represents dreams and beauty surviving in a harsh world, and only Spielberg can make this resonate without making us cringe. Indeed, he makes it enjoyable.