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Jeremy Fuster |
February 4, 2012 | 4:37 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

(Touchstone Pictures)
(Touchstone Pictures)

Sometimes the best films are the ones that take a simple plot or concept and create a compelling tale out of it by polishing each element of the film to a perfect shine.  This is what Steven Spielberg does in his Best Picture-nominated movie "War Horse."  It's a film that doesn't really do anything new or push any envelopes, but it's so technically sound and wonderfully heartfelt that it can serve as a textbook example of what makes a movie good.

The plot isn't cookie cutter but certainly feels like something you may have seen before.  Based on a best-selling novel and Tony-winning play, "War Horse" is centered around a thoroughbred named Joey, who is bought at an auction by an alcoholic farmer named Ted (Peter Mullan).  Ted's son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), bonds with Joey and trains the horse to work the plow and help around the farm.  But then World War I breaks out, and Albert is heartbroken as his father sells Joey to the British cavalry to pay for overdue rent.  

Thus begins a long journey for Joey that takes him throughout war torn Europe and in and out of the hands of several owners on different sides of the conflict.  The plot relies heavily on a set of increasingly unbelievable coincidences and Joey's almost supernatural ability to escape deadly situations.  At one point the horse even runs up and over a tank and over a trench while shells explode around him.  

But the flaws in the story are overcome by its excellent pathos.  The human actors are a carousel of characters that only appear at specific points in the film and later leave, but each one does his or her job of providing the film its emotional impact.  The scenes in which Joey changes owners --  whether by sale, force or tragic death -- are all memorable.  There's the first change from Albert to the cavalry, as the officer promises a tearful Albert that he will take care of Joey and bring him back at the end of the war.  Then there is the inner conflict of a German soldier that loves horses and is especially impressed by Joey, but also has to use horses to drag a heavy tank until they die.  Each owner is affected by Joey in their own unique way, but all their experiences share one thing: they all brought out the best of their character during a war that brought out the worst in humanity.

But the area that "War Horse" is truly exceptional is in its technical aspects, particularly the cinematography.  Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has worked with Spielberg in all of his films since "Schindler's List," and this may be his finest work yet.  Unlike the other two Spielberg/Kaminski war films, "List" and "Saving Private Ryan" (both of which got Kaminski an Academy Award), this film does not explicitly show the gruesome horror of war.  However, the impact of that horror can still be felt throughout the film thanks to Kaminski's camera work.  

The shots of the trenches and of the No Man's Land between them shows the claustrophobic terror the soldiers felt during the battle.  When two brothers are shot for deserting the German army, a passing windmill blade covers the execution just as they are shot.  Of course, beyond the war scenes, Kaminski's presentation is just as breathtaking, with incredible shots of British farmlands and French forests, and the final scene of the film depicting Joey gazing out into a bright orange sunset is a perfect ending to the film.  "War Horse" has been nominated for six Oscars, and while it is probably an outside contender in most categories, Kaminski has to be considered the front-runner for the best cinematography category.  

We have all seen the story of an animal getting separated from his loving master and touching the lives of random people on its journey back home.  I personally remember seeing that format in a series of MasterCard commercials.  But "War Horse" takes an old story and freshens it up through brilliant direction, acting, and technical skill.  It completely deserves its Best Picture nomination, and if you didn't see it when it was first released in December, you now have a second chance to see it on the silver screen in all its glory.

Grade: B+

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