Throughout his lengthy career, Steven Spielberg has consistently been dogged by criticism that his films are overly manipulative, as if appealing to the audience’s emotions wasn’t a wholly relevant goal in making a movie. Considering he’s almost certainly the most methodically precise director among his contemporaries when it comes to construction of his films, it may seem odd to assert that Spielberg seems to build his narrative by feel, almost as though he had an instinctual sense of what viewers need at any given moment. I’ve had countless arguments, for example, about the moments of catharsis at the end of Schindler’s List. While I’ll admit these scenes–led by Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler experiencing a grief-fueled breakdown as he flees his factory at the end of the war–are at odds with the grave restraint that characterizes the rest of the film, they provided exactly the sort of grand release that the film required after hours of Holocaust bleakness. Spielberg’s very best films are rife with moments that would be pure shams in the hands of lesser creators.
That quality noted, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s a part of his history rather than something that still informs his work. His latest outing (well, depending on how you choose to chronologically slot it against The Adventures of Tintin) should be exactly the sort of project that lets him flex those cinematic muscles. Based on a novel for kids that gained greater fame when it was adapted into a widely acclaimed stage play, War Horse tells the story of a fine colt named Joey. Purchased at auction by an English farmer in an act of boozy, petty competition, the horse is raised and trained by the man’s son, Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine. When heavy rains wipe out their crops, the horse is sold to British army to serve the troops heading into World War I. From there, Joey goes through a parade of experiences so episodic that it sometimes seems as if the plot was strung together from a batch of individual installments of a History Channel anthology series. The quest of the boy to reunite with his horse is ostensibly the emotional through line of the film, but realistically it’s just the bookends to the work.
Instead, Spielberg seems most intent on making his own epic in the style of John Ford with broad vistas and scenes when the shifting daylight turns the whole world a painterly gold. The actors and their performances barely register; more than any other Spielberg film I can think of, they are merely part of the landscape, speaking lines without appearing to feel them. The same lack of distinctiveness is true of the horse, which is both a strength and weakness of the film. With one admittedly egregious exception, Spielberg and credited screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis resist the urge to anthropomorphize Joey. He is a creature moving through history, not some noble soul pining for his former owner and the end of this brutal folly of war. He seems quite content to be anywhere that has some spare hay lying around. A director with a more subversive bent might use this as a way to comment on the way humans project their own messy emotions onto animals that have far plainer needs and desires. Spielberg doesn’t show the slightest interest in that level of commentary and the result is that Joey’s emptiness does nothing more than leave a void at the center of the film.
War Horse doesn’t lack for sincerity. If anything, it’s overburdened with it, atrophied into a dispiriting morass by the stalwart intentions of all involved. If anything, it could have used a dose of Spielberg the showman, the guy who knew how to reach right in and tinker with viewers’ hearts. To me, that component of his approach never felt crass. Instead, it was his version of openness, connecting with the audience with the same well-worn beats of Hollywood melodrama that had swayed him as an impressionable youth. Replacing that with the stiff rigor of War Horse is no way to win the battle against creative decline.