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War Horse, “Anti-War Mosaic”

Another early review has popped up, this by Ted Pigeon:

The film centers on a horse named Joey, who is auctioned off to a poor farmer who can hardly afford to maintain the farm and support his family. The farmer’s son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), trains Joey to plow the fields and eventually takes the horse under his wing. Structurally, War Horse resembles Spielberg’s film of ten years ago, A.I.. The first act presents a focused family drama before drastically changing course for an episodic second act, which follows the horse on a series of encounters with a variety of folks on different sides of the war. Like A.I., this film is most effective in delivering the shorter vignettes in its long middle section rather than with the main story established in the opening 30 to 40 minutes. However, while A.I. gave us a machine who simulated the actions and emotions of a human, Spielberg here asks us to invest in an animal that cannot feel or simulate human emotion. To his credit, Spielberg mostly avoids attributing human feelings to animals, though there are a few points that veer close. But to my surprise, the “horse perspective” plot device works very well because the story remains fixed on the human characters that weave throughout the narrative. Each of the smaller portraits in the middle of the film are delicate and compelling in depicting how various individuals are affected by and participate in the war. While not especially subtle, these smaller stories are quilted together into a larger anti-war mosaic that I found much more convincing than the director’s 1998 anti-(but-also-pro-)war film Saving Private Ryan. This film gives us characters on all sides of the conflict that are fearful, caring, and human.

In Spielberg’s vision, the larger context for the war or the strategic interests of the sides are not factors. This is where the plot element of the horse perspective plays a key role. The story of the horse becomes involving because it avoids “horse feelings” (for lack of a better term). Without diving too deeply into the horse’s motivations or emotions, Spielberg fashions a narrative strung together by benign observances of the fear and benevolence of those who enter into the horse’s narrative. The human characters are mostly all good people who do little things to help each other out. The film adopts a serious view of the implications for war while also citing the need to distort its reality (particularly in a wonderful passage involving on older Frenchmen and his granddaughter). One common thread to the human stories is the often dehumanizing social roles we inevitably must inhabit to survive. And as is typical of a Spielberg film, technology also features prominently among the film’s thematic undercurrents, particularly the technology of warfare. Another integral element that begs further exploration is how people communicate, whether with animals, the enemy, or through technology.