Despite his irregularly inflated reputation among those movie going masses that flock in droves to see the director's works (and hand him inevitable yet inexplicable accolades), and in spite of the fact that the man can shell out one hell of a good action yarn, making his war torn movies explode with visual audacity, Steven Spielberg can be an extremely cloying, emotionally manipulative and downright syrupy filmmaker. With War Horse, his epic-wannabe World War I heart-tugging adventure story of a young man and his horse (or actually of a horse and his young man), Spielberg has accomplished to gather both sides of his filmmaking personality, the exciting actioner and the trite manipulator, into one fell cinematic swoop.
Playing at plastic emotions as always, the first act of Spielberg's movie, set in the rolling hills of Devon, England, is one long roiling melodrama of heart and hope and typical Spielbergian hooey. Once we get into the trenches of WWI France, the film predictably picks up, as the director's true forte is action - and he gives us plenty of it. As we follow this heroic yet somewhat hapless horse around the battlefields of war torn Europe, at times a steely mount of the allies, and at other times a bruised and battered pack animal of those damned pointy-helmeted boys of the Kaiser, the adventure is ofttimes quite spectacular. One scene in particular, as we see our intrepid hero running through the ramparts of war, leaping across trenches and facing down tanks, bravely rescuing a fellow equine, charging full throttle through the barbed wire terrors of war, is easily one of the ten or fifteen best filmed sequences in any movie this year. Sadly though, as the war happily comes to an end, Spielberg throttles it back into the oversentimentalized (and this complaint is coming from a very sentimental critic) tropes that give his films such an unneeded extra layer of thick fattening sauce.
I suppose when all is finally said and done, War Horse is not a terrible film, but then again it is certainly not a film I can recommend to anyone but the die hard Spielbergian filmgoer - whoever they may be. I once (half-jokingly) included the first twenty minutes of Spielberg's 1998 war opus Saving Private Ryan in my best of the year list, and I could probably do the same here, though War Horse's powerful twenty minutes or so are scattered in pieces throughout, and unlike the aforementioned Private Ryan, these few saving graces are not enough to rescue an otherwise trembling piece of manipulatively emotional moviemaking as War Horse ends up being. In the end, the better bet would be to go and see the contemporaneously released other Spielberg movie, The Adventures of Tintin (made by the action-fueled side of the director and hence a much better picture) and leave this trying film in the dark - even with its inevitably demanded forthcoming Oscar nominations (cloying has always done rather well at Oscar time) in tow.