Steven Spielberg is a rare thing in the movies, an entire institution made from a single person — or better, a single name. A few of the very few others in the same league would be Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, and Humphrey Bogart, and probably only Chaplin has ever swung as much heft by virtue of his name alone. Even Hitchcock (who was much lighter and better) in his heydey couldn’t embody the director-as-superstar with as much supercilious grace as does Spielberg. Because of his status, a new film by Spielberg is viewed through an altogether different film-going prism than the prestige pictures that non-Spielberg-having studios release to compete with him. Spielberg’s prism refracts our awareness of his movies’ Spielbergian aspects (sap, American history, heroism, childlike wonder, earnest-and-eager claims on maturity) until they’re hardly recognizable as elements of a movie. He’s the one director working today who can claim of a mass audience what “art” directors can claim of their small clans of aficionados: that when people watch his movies, they are aware of the man who made them. The most important yet odd thing about him is not that he has directed so many hit movies, with so much cultural resonance, or even that he is one of the only directors in history to own his own major studio (again, he comes up against Chaplin). What’s most impressive is that he is so far from our conventional notion of a “true artist” and yet so good at the sub-artistry he releases that he has almost single-handedly redefined “art” in the movies. Before him, there were movies for the masses (Ford), and there were movies for the snobs (say, Buñuel). After him, everyone can be a snob. Spielberg has successfully veiled the difference between Hollywood money and Hollywood art.
All of which makes War Horse a particularly odd and a particularly Spielberg film. We expect from Spielberg the kind of sap and cinematic tricks he slathers over this highly classical movie — the epic tracking shots and show-stopper setpieces, the in-your-face nationalism and close-ups of teary faces — but we also expect something more, something (we don’t know what it is because we are not ourselves legendary geniuses) that will elevate the film to the level of Spielberg’s reputation. When he delivers a film with as much surface class as War Horse yet fails to deliver something really stirring (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), we’re more than likely to justify his failure by telling ourselves that either (a) we must have missed the movie’s greatness, because, being a Spielberg, greatness surely had to be there; or (b) Spielberg is so good that he has come all the way around to making films so deceptively simple we can’t comprehend their greatness.
The truth is that Spielberg lovingly tinkers with the past in the simplistic mode of John Ford, just with less stilted craftmanship. And like Ford, he was best when he was young and full of the pure energy of his filmmaking, which was so infectious and ambitious it masked the lack of depth. In old age, the world conquered; Spielberg can do nothing but run back over his magical little obsessions, the way Ford first remade his old movies in a modern style (3 Godfathers), then made movies that attempted to recreate the style of his early days (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). Spielberg has a similar obsession with the past: the majority of his films take place some time during or just before the 1940s, unless much earlier, as with Amistad and The Color Purple. But unlike Ford, Spielberg doesn’t have to remake his own movies, because the past he created has come right back up to him. Not only has J.J. Abrams remade Close Encounters and E.T., essentially, as Super 8; not only do Abrams and three generations of filmmakers owe him a direct debt; but with the breadth of CGI technology and an entire studio at his beck and call, Spielberg’s ability to recreate any bygone era and/or to retool his own earlier movies is as endless as movies can be.
War Horse follows one very talented horse as it’s pulled across WWI-ravaged Europe in service to one master after another, most notably a fresh-faced boy (Jeremy Irvine) who likes the horse better than any other animal on his parents’ cozy British farm. The film is made with Spielberg’s typically shiny (computer-aided) view of history and his tight, impeccable style. But more than the movie it obviously aspires to — Au Hasard Balthasar or any war movie by Ford — it reminds me of a clumsy yet sincere little film called The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez. Both films are cornpone-y melodramas from 2011, and both are cornered by severely portentous scripts; yet both rise to the challenge of delivering real pathos. Most people, I think, would consider War Horse the better film without a moment’s thought, because it’s by the legendary, still-relevant Spielberg, vice the has-been actor, novice director Estevez. And yet emotionally, they achieve exactly the same feat: to bypass their mounds of melted cheese to clog up your heartstrings. I’m not suggesting that The Way is a very good film — it’s a fairly bad one; War Horse is better, at least from a filmmaking standpoint — but rather that the only thing The Way lacks is the limitless budget and the stylistic flare of Spielberg. The supposed greater quality of War Horse is only the sheen of Spielberg’s technical prowess and, failing that, the sheer good will engendered by his name.
Although War Horse contains what are undeniably sincere vignettes about the impartiality of nature and the purity of something strong and good blindly crossing national boundaries, I have to admit that with this kind of honey, sincerity can be damned. I prefer Spielberg’s grittier stuff, the movies where he peppers his fleetingly credible view of the darker side of humanity with an appealingly assaulting tone. At least when he’s faking world-weary cynicism, he’s doing it with the same talent he applies to his genuinely simplistic family films. The dark ones just have better scripts, so you’re not forced to endure duck reaction shots and horse-nuzzling before you’re confronted with the director’s extraordinary ability to temporarily move you.