Steven Spielberg is a wildcard. While the legendary director has had more triumphs in capturing the human spirit on film than most directors can shake a stick at, he’s also prone to overreaching and falling flat. Fans were notoriously appalled by 2008’s Indiana Jones adaption, and in early 2011 he was involved in a conceptually ridiculous movie about real-life Rock’em Sock’em Robots (Real Steel). Spielberg always attempts to go big, and he’s most successful when the storyline of his movies matches the grand themes he inevitably tries to create.
War Horse plays right into his hands. A story about a thoroughbred’s journey through Europe in the midst of World War I, this movie has everything from a larger-than-life historical context to some of the most profound portrayals of human character. While the film can certainly feel like Spielberg is personally trying to twist your guts into a knot at every turn, the over-dramatization is never enough to make it any less entertaining.
After being separated from his young, Zac Efron look-alike owner, a horse named Joey with an indescribable beauty finds his way into the hands of people ranging from German soldiers to a terminally sick French teenager, all of who take measures to protect him from the atrocities of the war. Though the horse is the main focus of the film, Joey acts more as a common thread in a series of significant encounters. Possibly the most heart-wrenching moment of the film is when a German and British soldier come out from their respective trenches to help each other cut Joey free from barbed wire in the middle of the battlefield, a symbolic scene of mutual respect.
Predictably, Spielberg’s greatest feat is the cinematography. He manages to create highly realistic and epic portrayals of one of the most gruesome wars in history without any excess of gore. Just don’t expect this movie to be full of surprises; anyone with half a brain can see exactly how this movie will end shortly after the initial credits. But with an open mind and a healthy, willful suspension of disbelief, there’s no reason not to enjoy War Horse if you don’t resist it.