Review: Spielberg Pulls the Audience by the Nose with Manipulative ‘War Horse’

Any genuine moment that might have occurred gets pummeled into submission by the slick theatrics of the director and his collaborators

Confession time: I love Steven Spielberg’s screen adaptation of “The Color Purple,” but I can’t defend it. The music, the cinematography, the performances, and everything else about it has been painstakingly designed to manipulate an emotional response, and even though I can see the strings, I fall for it every time.

With “War Horse” — one of two new Spielberg films opening this week — I can still see all the strings, but there’s no pleasure to be had. The director is basically running a con game with composer John Williams and director of photography Janusz Kaminski, but there’s no joy in being scammed.

With the exception of a few lovely scenes, it’s a hollow and bombastic piece of work, clobbering you over the head with its epic-ness when it’s not cinematically yanking at your nosehairs in the hopes that you’ll cry.

“War Horse” is so plodding and shameless that I worried that screenwriters Lee Hall (“Billy Elliot”) and Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill,” “Love Actually”) either forgot everything they know about their craft or were paid handsomely enough to hold their noses and start shoveling. (In an ideal world, the two will collaborate on a blistering satire of this hokum.)

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, which also spawned the Tony-winning play, the film follows the saga of Joey, a racehorse that’s trained for farm work under the loving tutelage of Albert (Jeremy Irvine) after Albert’s drunken father Ted (Peter Mullan) overpays for the animal at auction.

World War I comes along and separates Joey and Albert, although the two of them have more than their fair share of adventures on their own — Joey is captured by Germans, forced to lug around heavy artillery, briefly hidden by a French dairy farmer (Niels Arestrup of “A Prophet”), and tangled in barbed wire, while Albert faces the grim realities of life on the battlefield.

There’s certainly a story to be told in all this, but rather than trust its inherent drama or the work of his fine cast, Spielberg pours on the stirring music, the orange sunsets, and the wide-eyed wonder while cranking all the emotional stakes up to 11.

None of this covers up the fact that we’ve seen this stuff done better elsewhere — the scenes of Albert winning Joey’s trust pale next to the gorgeous, wordless sequences in “The Black Stallion” where boy and horse bond, and while the battle scenes here are stirring from time to time, they’re barely a patch on “Paths of Glory” or even Spielberg’s own accomplishments in “Saving Private Ryan.”

By the time the film reaches its final 30 minutes, during which I counted four separate “Cry now!” moments, and Kaminski slaps on the orange-marmalade filter to flagrantly rip off “Gone with the Wind,” I was quite ready for this impressive horse, and the scores of people who fall in love with him over the course of the story, to go off and live on a farm somewhere.

Despite its pedigree, “War Horse” more often than not feels like an “American Idol” contestant with impressive pipes but no idea what to do with them — belting to the back row is only effective when you do it occasionally, not when you start on that note and then stay there for hours at a time.