The horse is out of the bag. Steven Spielberg’s much-awaited epic War Horse began its industry screenings in earnest this afternoon, Thanksgiving Day, in both New York and Los Angeles by inviting members (via trade ads and website Monday) of most guilds , critics groups, and, of course, the Academy to special holiday weekend screenings that will continue through Sunday in both cities as well as San Francisco (Fri-Sun). In addition , as previously announced , there will be public sneaks in NYC and nine other cities on Sunday afteroon (10:30AM in LA at AMC Century City) followed by a Q&A with Spielberg in NY that will be satellited to the other cities as well as streamed live on MSN.com. It is an innovative “one-stop shopping” tactic on the part of Dreamworks (and Disney who distributes) since Spielberg is on the east coast currently shooting Lincoln and not available for the usual round of campaign activities. Its “World Premiere” will take place December 4th at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC.
The big launch is on now even though the film was completed for all intents and purposes in September. At the Labor Day weekend Telluride Film Festival producer Kathleen Kennedy told me they only had the D.I. to complete at that time, but even though it was ready the film, which opens on December 25, has skipped the festival circuit in favor of its own circuitous route to release. That included the unusual strategy of employing surprise “pop up” screenings Nov 1-10 in small towns like Bellvue Wa, Leawood and Olathe Ks, Cleveland Heights Oh, Beaverton Or, Bethesda MD and Plymouth Meeting, PA indicating a “heartland” strategy in order to get word of mouth moving . That same week Dreamworks started quietly showing the film to select media (including Deadline) on the big screen at the Disney lot’s main theatre. A strict embargo existed until today right after the first Thanksgiving screening when most media and industry types would have had at least the opportunity to begin seeing it. So expect a lot of industry and media twittering, facebooking and reviews to start almost immediately with still a solid month to go before its Christmas day wide opening.
What Spielberg has wrought is a stunning looking and highly emotional epic that is Hollywood moviemaking at its best, and seems likely to be the filmmaker’s most Academy- friendly work since his Oscar winners, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Is it old-fashioned? You bet , but in this fast-moving techno culture that may be a welcome thing. Spielberg is known to be a great admirer of David Lean and with its sweeping vistas, deliberate pacing and epic story of one horse’s remarkable journey through the front lines of World War I, the film could almost be a tribute to the great director of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Just for the craft alone Oscar nominations would seem to be assured for Best Picture and Director, John Williams’ score, Rick Carter’s production design,Michael Kahn’s editing, the sound work and Janusz Kaminski’s striking cinematography. Although there hasn’t been much buzz about the cast which includes Jeremy Irvine, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Mullan, they don’t strike any false notes delivering fine performances, and Tom Hiddleston’s Captain Nichols could even merit some Best Supporting Actor talk though that category is almost impossibly tough this year. As for the horses there should be some kind of separate Academy Award. They are suprisingly expressive (one of them came from Seabiscuit). The film , in look and execution is easily the best of its genre since Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion in 1979, a movie that earned a handful of Oscar nods but shamefully didn’t even get a Cinematography nomination for Caleb Deschanel’s landmark cinematography.
War Horse is probably too emotional and traditional to earn much love on the hardcore unsentimental critics awards circuit, but I imagine it will fare very well at the CCMA’s, Golden Globes, and Oscars, even though some of the Academy’s more recent Best Picture choices, notably No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker among others indicate a different sensibility than the kind of once-traditional “bigger”, more craft-laden film the Academy once favored, and a category into which War Horse definitely falls. Although The King’s Speech triumph last year over the more trendy critics choice of The Social Network might indicate there is still room for less edgy, more “traditional” films in the heart of the Academy voter. We’ll have to wait to see, but the sheer scope of War Horse certainly gives it its own niche against smaller favored Best Pic hopefuls (seen so far) like The Descendants, The Artist, Midnight In Paris and Moneyball.
On the other hand voters might think Spielberg has had enough accolades (3 Oscars, a Thalberg award, AFI Life Achievement and Kennedy Center Honors), plus he’s got another film, the animated The Adventures of Tintin opening just four days earlier than War Horse. Will that one-two punch at the boxoffice inspire admiration – or Spielburn-out? Just three days before Tintin’s release this very prolific film and television producer and director also hits the milestone age of 65, but there is no sign of retirement any time soon.
He has six Best Director nominations for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) , Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) , winning for the latter two. His most recent directing nod came for 2005’s Munich. Schindler’s List is the only Spielberg film to win Best Picture. He has twelve nominations overall between Picture and directing nods. Interestingly both his directing wins came for movies set during World War II. Can a World War I flick bring him the directorial triple crown few, even David Lean, have managed in Oscar history?
Certainly War Horse comes with the pedigree. It was a best selling book first issued in 1982, then became an international theatrical hit winning five Tonys including Best Play earlier this year for its smash Broadway run which is still continuing at Lincoln Center. When I saw the play in May I wondered how any filmmaker could replicate the magic of the production and its extraordinary use of full sized horse puppetry of the amazing Handspring Puppet Company. But as Kennedy told me in Telluride, “War Horse could be the subject of a great Masters Thesis in showing how to take a book, a play and a movie and give them each their own uniqueness, even as they came from the same source material”. It is also unique in having three different writers. Michael Morpurgo wrote the book, Nick Stafford penned the play and Lee Hall and Richard Curtis did the screenplay. Spielberg’s challenge was to how to make the story cinematically compelling without tarnishing the memory of the book or play. If the Academy feels he succeeded , War Horse could become the first project to win both a Best Play Tony and Best Picture Oscar in the same year of their opening.