In 1982, the British author Michael Morpurgo wrote War Horse, a book for younger readers that portrayed the suffering of World War I—on all sides—through the eyes of a horse. Joey, as he’s called, begins on a farm in Devon but is conscripted by British forces, seized by Germans after a bloody battle, adopted by a Belgian girl, taken back by Germans … and on and on, through 1918, when the horse ends up amid the corpse-strewn trenches of no-man’s-land. Despite the barbarous milieu, Morpurgo’s prose is modest and uninflected. You discover, for example, that a noble officer has been killed only when Joey realizes that he is riderless. In 2007, Nick Stafford developed a stage version in which Joey was a life-size puppet with beautifully delineated musculature. The puppets, their handlers in view, added a distance that was occasionally at odds with the sentimental story. But it was terrific theater.
Steven Spielberg’s film of War Horse has no distancing devices or puppets and returns Morpurgo’s novel to its roots. To say it’s a “family film”—for kids 13 and up—is no slight. The horror isn’t minimized, but Spielberg pulls back from the grisly bombardment of Saving Private Ryan. He aims for a limpid, old-fashioned style that puts him firmly in the “square” category beside contemporaries with their jittery cameras and splatter (most of them imitating Private Ryan). It’s the restraint that makes War Horse remarkable. Spielberg shows you enough to understand that what you’re watching—machine guns, mustard gas, bodies stretching into the distance—was unprecedented. And amid the incomprehensible slaughter, it’s a horse that reminds these warriors of their humanity.
Said horse is purchased at auction by the drunken farmer Narracott (Peter Mullan) after a bidding war with his landlord, the upshot of which is that there’s no money for rent. Bloody paradoxical victory! As often happens in Spielberg’s work, it’s the sensitive son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who must take over for his father, and the film’s first section affirms the boy’s belief that this animal is special. With the troops’ departure, the point of view passes to Joey and his new master (Tom Hiddleston), a gentleman captain who engages in a friendly riding contest with a major (Benedict Cumberbatch) atop a black steed called Topthorn. Tallyho, pip, pip, death to the Kaiser!
The British have no notion of what awaits them, and their cavalry charge through the tall wheat is both lyrical and ghastly. Spielberg proves that “aestheticizing” horror doesn’t mean cheapening or falsifying it. When two teenagers are later executed, the camera rises behind a turning windmill, one of its blades obscuring the instant of death. It’s among the most merciful depictions of murder I’ve seen, yet still unspeakable. It casts a shadow over the respite that follows in a Belgian farmhouse where a girl (Celine Buckens) lives with her embittered grandfather (the extraordinary Niels Arestrup). The old man knows he can’t protect the child, that war will take everything.
Spielberg has been ridiculed for shooting his actors from below against impossibly Spielbergian skies and a denouement that lays the love on copiously. But there’s nothing simpleminded about how he uses movie magic, as a spell to dispel nihilism, to save us from the worst of ourselves by summoning up the best.
Never lacking nerve, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer leaped on the opportunity presented by 9/11 for his messy Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, which weds a modern American trauma to themes he explored in Everything Is Illuminated. There are multiple narrators, but the central figure is 9-year-old Oskar Schell, struggling to live through the loss of his dad, Thomas, in the World Trade Center. Thomas devised puzzles and scavenger hunts to force his fearful son out into the world, and Oskar becomes convinced there’s a vital message at the finish line of his dad’s final challenge. Broken or cryptic communications between damaged parents and kids show up all through the book, along with memories of Dresden and, more gratuitously, Hiroshima. I often wished Oskar’s turns of phrase (and insistence on wearing white and carrying a tambourine) were less cute, until I realized that cute is Foer’s mode of rhetoric—and when it works, he finds sneakily poetic ways of evoking our longing for a lost past.
Stephen Daldry’s film eliminates the other perspectives, along with some of the boy’s irritating tics (i.e., the white wardrobe), and homes in on a middle ground between jumpy postmodernism and Oscar-bait uplift. He succeeds, although once he strips away the gimmicks and appends an inspirational ending, what’s left is a tearjerker that doesn’t fully earn the right to use such terrible images. The first thing onscreen—a body falling in slow motion—made me want to flee: too much horror too fast. The other wrenching device is a series of six answering-machine messages left by Thomas (Tom Hanks) from the burning tower, his assurances increasingly unconvincing. For reasons only later apparent, Oskar (Thomas Horn) replaces the machine and lies to his mother (Sandra Bullock). It’s the final message he can’t share, and it’s withheld from us, too—an emotional striptease—until the end. Yes, it’s very bad, and not for the reason we’ve anticipated.
Thomas Horn, discovered on a Jeopardy! teen tournament, has to carry the picture, and he’s not really an actor—more of an intelligent reciter. Fortunately, Oskar is an overintellectualizer, lacking in affect. When he finds a key in an envelope in his father’s closet bearing the word “Black,” Oskar decides to visit every “Black” in the New York phone book. The parade of Blacks—young and old, of many races and dispositions—is fairly tedious, but Chris Menges’s cinematography gives every neighborhood its own character. Best of all, the boy is accompanied in later visits by a mute, elderly man known as the Renter, a guest in the apartment of Oskar’s grandmother (Zoe Caldwell).
The Renter’s muteness is accounted for at length in Foer’s book, but here it’s just a given and would be terribly precious (he communicates by writing on pads, except for “Yes” and No,” which are tattooed on his palms) if he weren’t played by Max von Sydow. There’s a bit of Chaplin in his walk and Stan Laurel in his weary shrugs, but Von Sydow makes this man his own: an irreducible mixture of chastened father and lost child. The other actors aren’t as lucky—they have dialogue—but Hanks makes you miss him when he’s gone, and Bullock gets a good final scene when she lets Oskar know that he has never been as alone as he thought. But the question hangs: Does this artificial, three-hankie scenario justify its 9/11 appropriations? Dry your eyes and decide for yourself.
Cameron Crowe is a romantic bordering on utopian, and his authentic family values—biological and surrogate—shine through in his enchanting We Bought a Zoo, loosely adapted from Benjamin Mee’s memoir. “We” is Matt Damon, in shock from the death of his wife, and his two kids, who move into a house with a foundering menagerie and a staff including Scarlett Johansson as the head keeper. The movie is formulaic (money crises, runaway snakes, a villainous inspector), but the grief-whimsy continuum that Daldry labors so hard to trace in Extremely Loud comes easily to Crowe. The score by Jónsi—twinkly, with elegiac underpinnings—gives the animals a supernatural vibe, and Damon and Colin Ford as his teen son have an affecting hesitancy, their hearts hovering between the living and the dead.