After a Weekend of ‘War Horse’ Screenings, Will Voters Say Yea or Neigh?

Robust and sentimental, Steven Spielberg’s drama will need to bring out the old-fashioned side of Oscar voters

Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" may be one of the final awards contenders to be unveiled this year, but after a month of sporadic screenings, DreamWorks unveiled it with a vengeance this weekend.

War Horse posterThe company staged public sneak previews on Sunday in 10 cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Boston, Atlanta and Washington D.C.

And Spielberg did a post-screening Q&A in New York that was simulcast in all the participating theaters, with audience members not in the Big Apple able to text in their questions.

In addition, on a holiday weekend when Academy and guild screenings were taking place all day every day, "War Horse" was by far the most-screened film.

In Los Angeles, it had three screenings on Thanksgiving day, two on Friday, one on Saturday and two more on Sunday.

In New York and San Francisco, the schedule was only slightly less intensive, with five screenings between Thursday and Sunday.

The result of all those screenings was curious. A few Oscar pundits, including Kris Tapley, David Poland, Pete Hammond and Greg Ellwood, immediately called it a potential Best Picture winner, and maybe even the current favorite.

"Can it win? … It most certainly can," wrote Tapley. "Will it? Well, we’ll have to see if the season is kind to it."

On Gold Derby's Best Picture chart, though, the film actually fell  in the rankings in the aftermath of the weekend screenings. It still ranks third, behind "The Artist" and "The Descendants," but with only a 13 percent chance to win, down from 20 percent the previous week.

And some of the reactions have been scathing. Jeff Wells, who has often been vocal about how he considers Spielberg "a high-end journeyman hack with an all-but-incorrigible sentimental streak," saidthe film is "so shameless it's a hoot."

After seeing the movie at an Academy and guild screening on Sunday morning, I know exactly what he's talking about: The final scene alone, shot against a red sky straight out of "Gone With the Wind" and playing out to the robust strains of John Williams' score, is almost laughably sentimental.

And yet "War Horse" is undeniably moving; you can quarrel with that quintessentially Spielbergian rosy glow with which far too many scenes are suffused, but sooner or later it'll get to you. (For me, it was the horse racing through no man's land that did the trick.)

The real question that "War Horse" raises, I suspect, is this: How old-fashioned is the Academy these days?

Last year's winner, "The King's Speech," may have suggested that the voters are indeed old-fashioned, but that film managed to feel fresh even as it paid off emotionally in many of the traditional ways.

By comparison, Spielberg's movie feels as if it came from another era. The filmmaker said in his Sunday Q&A that he wasn't paying tribute to any specific films, but the echoes of "Gone With the Wind" and any number of David Lean films are clear.

That, I'd guess, is not exactly what the Academy is looking for these days, "The King's Speech" notwithstanding.

Remember, the four big Oscar winners prior to last year were "The Departed," "No Country for Old Men," "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Hurt Locker" — and while "Slumdog" had its fairy-tale moments, all of those winners were darker and grittier than the kind of films that the Academy is known for embracing.

"War Horse" may show us whether that stretch of winners was an anomaly, or a sign of the new order. For now, I'm betting on the latter.