"War Horse" has two claims to greatness: Janusz Kaminski's gorgeous photography and a mid-film scene where opposing armies set aside their conflict to rescue a horse.
But there are many other reasons to see Steven Spielberg's latest triumph.
Based on a 1982 children's book that was adapted into a successful play, the film concerns a boy and his horse who grow up together on a British farm but are separated when the horse is sold to serve in World War I; shortly thereafter, the boy enlists as well, hoping to track down his beloved equine.
Jeremy Irvine is shown in a scene from Spielberg’s “War Horse.”
The almost classical simplicity of this narrative is perfectly matched by Kaminski's visual style.
In many outdoor scenes, light seems to come from two separate sources, giving a heightened presence to people or objects in the foreground; this creates an otherworldly, almost fairy-tale feel while also recalling the look of older films like John Ford's "Quiet Man."
Elsewhere, Kaminski captures the fog and smoke of war, the quiet beauty of a lakeside windmill, cavalry moving through shoulder-high grasses, ranks of trees marching into misty infinity, battlefields strewn with slain men and horses.
Some frames are so dazzling that you want the projectionist to stop the film so you can drink them all in; others will burn themselves into your memory.
Spielberg has already made what may be the greatest war movie ever, and "War Horse" is no toss-off in this regard; yet it sets itself apart from "Saving Private Ryan" in several ways:
This is a different war in a different era, and the focus, of course, is mostly on the horse; but the biggest difference is in the handling of violence.
Most of the deaths occur off camera; there's little of the gore that made "Private Ryan" nearly unwatchable in some scenes.
Indeed, "War Horse" is restrained enough for all but the youngest viewers, despite its PG-13 rating.
The many fine performances are highlighted by Emily Watson as the boy's mother, Niels Arestrup as a kindly French "grand-pere" and Tom Hiddleston as a dignified British captain.
With his galvanizing work in this film, "Thor" and "Midnight in Paris" - three vastly different roles - I will now officially see anything Hiddleston is in.
As for that mid-film truce: Dashing across the no-man's land between opposing trenches, the horse gets badly snared in coils of barbed wire; as a British soldier waves a white flag and goes to help, one lone German joins him with wire-cutters - and a makeshift ceasefire descends while the men work to free Joey.
As the scene runs to its understated conclusion, we realize that Spielberg has done it again: He's made something closer to wizardry than to cinema, something that unearths deep truths about life, something that reminds us what it means to be human - something you thought movies didn't do much anymore.
I can't wait to see next year's Spielberg movie about Lincoln.