Sunday, April 8, 2012

Spielberg's War Horse: Saving Mr. Ed

By Steve Evans

Friends, film lovers and cinephiles everywhere, I come not to bury Steven Spielberg, but to praise him in a back-handed way, and to paraphrase Shakespeare, since Spielberg and I might as well borrow from the best.

Here is a filmmaker who knows how to tell stories, such as his recent offering, War Horse. He also knows how to press emotional buttons that make his skill at audience manipulation almost the equal of Hitchcock. Spielberg may hold aspirations as great as Shakespeare's, but the most famous film director in the world forever falls victim to his own emotional excess.

Spielberg cannot resist pouring on the schmaltz. It is his fall-back plan time and again. His safety net. Ever since he turned 30, around the time Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released, Spielberg has rarely been able to rise above a cloying level of sentimentality comparable to the films of Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), whose detractors derisively referred to as "Capra-corn."

For those who enjoy a director yanking on their heart-strings, Spielberg will satisfy those cravings with War Horse, as unabasedly old-fashioned and sentimental a picture as he has ever made. To see War Horse is to wonder if Ingmar Bergman actually directed The Color Purple or Always.

Never a man to trust his audience, Spielberg uses John Williams' War Horse musical score to highlight, amplify and hammer us over the head with every point he wishes to make (and a few he probably doesn't):

1. War is bad.
2. World War I was especially nasty.
3. Horses are pretty and have expressive eyes.
4. Horses are brave.
5. A boy and his horse should not be separated.
6. Chance may favor the prepared mind, but random chance is the guiding force in the world.
7. Convenient coincidences help move your story along. Do it fast enough, and few will notice the plot holes.

I will not dwell on the plot of War Horse, which is thoroughly reviewed across the Internet. Nor will I find fault with the technical execution of this beautifully crafted film. It is the sort of good-looking event picture that fairly overwhelms with the smell of the money that must have gone into its production.

And yet.

I argue principally that Spielberg persists, after 40 years of making films, in holding his audience by the hand and explaining every detail to them as a parent might talk to a slow child.

I still think Spielberg's Jaws is one of the most effectively terrifying and brilliantly constructed thrillers in the history of the cinema. It holds up well. But after that seminal film came out in 1975, something switched on (or off?) in Spielberg's brain. He discovered that by telegraphing his every intention -- giving a shout-out to the cheap seats -- he could pack more people into the movie theater, especially the dull-witted folks who might need a little help with story exposition and those slippery, elusive themes that occasionally transform mass entertainment into Art.

In the years after Jaws made him rich, Spielberg's relentless appeal to the common man resulted in movies that were simply...common. This is a director who never seems to have much faith in the intelligence of his audience. Two exceptions come to mind: Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. He won directing Oscars for both. They are arguably his best films.

Still, in the concluding scenes of Schindler's List, when Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) undergoes an emotional breakdown and the people he has saved swarm around him to give comfort...ah...the music swells on the soundtrack and we all weep in catharsis. It is one of the most overwrought moments in the last 50 years of the cinema and nearly undermines the devastation that has gone before it.

Steven Spielberg has the clout and resources to produce the very best films that money can buy, but he almost always relies on the assumption that everyone in his audience has the intellectual and emotional development of a nine-year-old.

War Horse may be the most expensive ABC After School Special ever made, which is unfortunate. Rated PG-13 and replete with harrowing combat scenes, the picture clearly was not intended for children, although its message is well-suited for kids.

Spielberg may not have much faith in the brain pans of those who pay to see his films, but he could elevate his art while simultaneously stoking his ego and enhancing his reputation for all posterity -- factors that seem important to him, judging from his interviews and comments through the years -- if he would simply stop insulting our intelligence.

On the other hand, the director may have access to information that I do not. If he has learned conclusively that people who still go to the movies are, in the aggregate, dim and unsophisticated, then he has hit upon a successful formula that may serve him well for the balance of his career.

That is a prospect more frightening than anything in Jaws.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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