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Spielberg and Fincher: Taming Creatures

WWI gets Spielberg’d; Fincher’s new girl in town

Consummate technicians with bankable interests and personal trademarks, Steven Spielberg and David Fincher are something more than auteurs, but also something less—closer to skilled craftsmen than creative artists.

Spielberg's War Horse and Fincher's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, prestige adaptations both, are quintessential additions to their directors' respective bestiaries. The tattooed Girl might make for a more compelling protagonist than the martyred Horse (and its devoted Boy), but both of these doggedly overwrought productions seem less felt than facile, essentially uninvolving—except perhaps as logistical exercises.

It might be perverse to accuse a tearjerker as accomplished as Steven Spielberg of being unfeeling. But the overcalculation with which he mechanically trots out one of his most familiar tropes for what amounts to a generic Disney animal story seems to preclude any but the most hackneyed emotion. What catastrophe cannot be Spielbergized? No less than Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and (more entertainingly) War of the Worlds, War Horse finds the silver lining of individual salvation in one of modern history's darkest thunderclouds—namely the wholesale, pointless slaughter of World War I. Millions die, but . . . you don't need me to tell you how this massive capital investment ends.

Details

The War Horse
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Touchstone
Opens December 25

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Directed by David Fincher
Sony Pictures
Opens December 21

Opening on Christmas Day, War Horse is hardly without ambition. As the English country lad Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the beloved, half-Thoroughbred steed he has named Joey and, once the horse is conscripted by the British army, follows him into the hellish vortex of Flanders Field, Spielberg seeks to represent the horror of modern combat in human (or at least mammalian) terms. But since he's a director largely incapable of understatement, War Horse is served up with a self-aggrandizing, distracting surplus of Norman Rockwell backlighting, aerial landscape shots designed to out-swoop David Lean's, and an aggravated sense of doggone wonderment amplified by the director's dependence on John Williams's bombastic score. Dialogue is superfluous; in its way, War Horse is as much a "silent movie" as The Artist. Every triumph is pounded into your head and punctuated by a dolly-in close-up.

"Who is this movie for?" a colleague muttered shortly before bailing. War Horse is based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 young-adult novel, itself the basis for the National Theatre of Great Britain's virtuoso, multiple-Tony-winning, fearfully expensive puppet show. I found the play brilliantly staged and dramatically inert, and, as written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones's Diary), the cinematic War Horse is even more simpleminded and inspirational than the stage production, eliminating or smoothing over its major conflicts—as when improving the character of Albert's feckless father (Peter Mullan), no longer a coward but an unappreciated war hero who purchases Joey in a fit of drunken bravado directed not against his more successful brother but a greedy landlord. (The play War Horse derives its power from its abstract "life-like" puppets. Here, the horse isn't anthropomorphized so much as the humans are, notably the hyper-animated French grandpa played by Niels Arestrup as if auditioning to understudy one of Snow White's adorable li'l curmudgeons.)

Being a movie, Spielberg's War Horse is inevitably more graphic than the show—though its battlefield scenes are far less gory than Private Ryan's stunning D-Day overture. The run-up to war affords the director some spectacular flourishes even as it broadens Joey's horizons. The horse is purchased by a friendly officer, meets and bonds with another stallion, Topthorne, and leads a surprise cavalry attack on the Germans, an exciting rout that, like several other moments, suggests Spielberg should make a real horse opera. Joey is the first-person narrator of Morpurgo's novel. The movie doesn't go that far, but it tracks the horse through his own war—several times captured by and escaping from the Germans as he is used to pull field ambulances or haul artillery. Meanwhile, Albert is in the trenches, still babbling about his lost Joey, as he and his comrades go over the top.

Following a dumb brute on its arduous journey from master to master (most of whom perish), War Horse has an unavoidable similarity to Robert Bresson's sublime Au hasard Balthazar. Indeed, the sequence in which Joey—like Bresson's donkey—is adopted by a willful, unlovable French peasant girl suggests the parallel might have occurred to Spielberg. The difference is not solely a matter of Bresson's ascetic restraint and Spielberg's shameless schmaltz, or Bresson's tragic sense of life and Spielberg's unswerving belief in the happy ending. Suffering witness to all manner of enigmatic human behavior, Balthazar is pure existence; Joey is an abstraction. Had Spielberg elected to show war (or life) from Joey's perspective rather than use the horse as the war's protagonist, the movie could have been truly terrifying. Instead, its most impressive passage is pure digital delirium as an animated Joey runs free across the CGI battlefield, jumps over trenches, rears up under the full moon, pulls down the barbed wire, and collapses in no-man's-land.

That Joey! Uniting doughboys and officers, children and adults, the Brits and the Bosch, mending broken hearts, and restoring eyesight to the blind, this indomitable horse does not reproach humanity. Embodying what his creators take to be our best, most selfless and enduring instincts, he justifies it.

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16 comments
DebNY4
DebNY4

"A dumb brute" That's as cynical as one can get.

Genesisranch1
Genesisranch1

You're an idiot who knows nothing about horses and little about humanity!

Fantom50
Fantom50

You are absolutely much to full of yourself. So much so that your brain doesn't comprehend the obvious. Find a new job. You are very annoying.

Bret
Bret

Good grief...did someone get a new thesaurus for Christmas?

Stephanie Clark Pires
Stephanie Clark Pires

I guess I would say I like your review, but I disagree with your point of view. I enjoyed the movie and I feel that anti-war sentiment, given the current climate of the world, needs to be repeated again and again. I loved it. Although your points about Spielberg, etc. border on the haterish, I feel your entitled to your opinion, I just disagree.

L Smith
L Smith

Completely agree with the review. Such improbable events. Way overrated. Once again, I fell for the pre release hype.

Gordonjungwirth
Gordonjungwirth

'Couldn't disagree with this review more. Having read the book, but too poor to see the play and too far removed in flyover country, I was impressed by the film adaptation. It was accessible to a general American audience while also pushing us to consider the unspeakably horrifying costs of war for soldiers- both human and animal alike- as well as civilians. In a culture that all too often glorifies violence and portrays war in triumphant fashion, this film illustrates the vulnerability that defines us and evokes our humanity, even amid the darkest circumstances of battle. Applause to all who worked on and supported a story that attests to the animal and human costs of war.

Vogt_v
Vogt_v

Sorry, but once you called the horse a "dumb brute", you became exactly like those characters in the movie that didn't care at all about the horses but forced them to pull the guns until they died.Until that point, you had a good review. Those 2 words make us realize how evil you are.

DM
DM

"Taming Creatures" Are you referring to the horse - and a woman as these creatures? Not cool at all.

dredge
dredge

When Spielberg turned Kubrics tragic story into a happy ending I gave up on this guy. He's dishonest.

Yngwie F Malmsteen
Yngwie F Malmsteen

Do some fucking research, the Immigrant Song cover is by Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross w/ vocals by Karen O.

Wataru
Wataru

Why? It's a horse and it certainly can't speak, so "dumb brute" is both an apt description free of cynicism and probably an arch reference to "Moby Dick".

Genesisranch1
Genesisranch1

Liked ur comments except I hated the entire review. Someone thinks he's intellegent, but the only thing he actually shows is his a**. Disgusting!

Turk
Turk

... it does to a(nother) fincher/reznor yupster fanboy, and always will.i love it; a (history) term-paper like distillation on spielberg's piece AND comparative analysis of a twice produced cinematic adaptation of an internationally acclaimed work of (admittedly) lithe, sensationalist, and-therefore-already-discussed-to-death fiction... but yeah, git yer almighty lord reznor facts straight, you dumb fucking culturally retarded pig you.what was that michael haneke quote about "if someone must adapt my work for the americans, can't theaters just hire a famous band to both play and read the subtitles out loud, and leave my film untouched?".

 

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