Just as The Artist boasts a built-in underdog story perfectly primed to court Oscar (“It’s silent, it’s black and white, and it’s actually a lovable hit!”), War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s old-school insta-contender, has its own inherent, frontrunner-battling virtues to get behind, its title alone as apt as one could imagine for a top hopeful striving to stay ahead in the race. War Horse’s largely good critical ink and inevitably good box office have some pundits capitalizing on an attractive, would-be-winner scenario, attempting to add intrigue to a redundant precursor influx by declaring the equine epic the new Best Picture candidate to beat. The truth is, while The Descendants has certainly fallen behind as The Artist’s toughest competition, not much about War Horse’s chances has changed since the movie’s Christmas release. It is unsurprisingly grand, and unsurprisingly beloved in a not-quite-universal way, all of which still suggests it will place in the top category, but have to settle for a nomination. Humoring the notion of a War Horse victory is a bit too cynical and trend-driven, invoking last year’s King’s Speech win to hastily declare a complete death of the Academy/critics’ group alignment that flourished in the aughts.
The joke is that while The Artist and Hugo deliberately dig up cinematic nostalgia, War Horse would in fact be more of a throwback pick, as its lavishly dated tone and technique prove far more old-fashioned than its competitors’ content. It will be interesting to see which kind of reminiscence will ultimately win over more Oscar voters, but, at this point, relatively novel spectacles in 3-D and black-and-white seem more enticing than a spectacle in occasionally-implied Technicolor. All of the fine Spielberg analyses that have been flooding the web lately, and sharply measuring up the maestro’s familiar methods, have both helped and hindered his new film’s effectiveness, at once highlighting his formal trademarks and underlining his adamant dustiness. While it is without doubt the source of some of the year’s most gorgeous sequences, War Horse may also be Spielberg’s most ridiculous movie, its saturation of sentiment so complete, and forced so far beyond what the film actually warrants, that one basically needs to think like a child to fully enjoy it, and block out the just-won’t-quit buffoonery of such things as that blinding Scarlett-O’Hara sky that ushers in the credits. The viewer is essentially tasked to embrace and love the fact that there’s still a master out there willing to make widescreen epics that glide across landscapes and nod to John Ford, while the tale itself goes through motions that aren’t just antiquated, but lacking in emotional involvement. Spielberg will net a Best Director nomination, and maybe he deserves it, but there’s a mighty long line of innovative helmers who deserve it more.
Such a statement, however, is in no way meant to discredit War Horse’s breathtaking setpieces, which stand among the great treasures of 2011 filmgoing. An early British assault on a German camp, which sees cavalry emerge from a heavenly golden wheatfield only to ride into brutal hell, is perhaps the most well-shot and well-directed action scene of the year. And a later segment that sees Joey, the titular stallion, thunder through battlefields and across trenches from a low, alarmingly intense angle is an astonishing bit of war footage. No one will be able to take this movie’s technical nominations away from it, and it’ll handily and deservedly gallop off with nods for Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Sound Mixing, and Sound Effects Editing. A nom for Costume Designer Joanna Johnston is possible, but the film’s eighth and final nomination should instead be penciled in for John Williams’s hugely expressive Original Score, which demands attention almost as much as Janusz Kamiński’s crane-operated camera. “More is more” is indeed the modus operandi of this sweeping melodrama, and while that likely won’t get it across the finish line in many categories, it’ll keep it going strong.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Director, Steven Spielberg; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Art Direction; Best Original Score; Best Sound Mixing; Best Sound Effects Editing.
Possibilities: Best Costume Design.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: None.