Withhold the scoffing for a moment. War Horse is sentimental and old-fashioned, yes, but in its consideration of the emotional damage done by warfare, the movie also gets at something that is actually the opposite. Seeing as the movie came out within days of the last United States troops leaving Iraq, what we really have here is something vitally contemporary and terribly upsetting.
Set during World War I, a conflict we experience largely through the eyes of a thoroughbred that has been drafted into battle, War Horse nevertheless couldn’t be timelier. The movie evokes the life-defining experience of leaving young innocence behind to engage in senseless violence, to survive out of sheer luck and then come home again – alive, but deeply changed.
I’m not praising War Horse simply for being topical. Goodness knows timing isn’t all a movie needs (look at Margin Call, 2011’s overrated drama about the root of the financial crisis). War Horse ultimately works because it speaks so artfully and movingly to its crucial subject.
Indeed, director Steven Spielberg manages his most impressive moments not in the instances of inspirational hokiness (of which there are too many), but in the film’s darkest details: a military execution, partly obscured by the mercifully sweeping arm of a windmill; a cavalry of horses jerking their heads up in unison at the sound of a single, lethal shot; a climactic reunion in silhouette, in which the ostentatiously red sunset isn’t there to warm our hearts, but to remind us that this has been a tale of both balm and blood.
With no human hero at its center, War Horse is structured as a series of sorrowful good-byes. Early on we see the title animal taken from its mother. Later, we will witness a boy leaving his mother, a brother leaving his brother, the horse being separated from a fellow beast that has been its companion in battle. Spielberg gives each of these moments their tender due, so that the pain is palpable.
Yes, War Horse is no Au Hasard Balthazar (heck, it’s not even The Black Stallion). Yet it’s not simple-minded sop either. The movie is being written off as pandering and placating, but could it be that we just don’t want to really deal with its damaged heart?