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'War Horse' World Premiere Draws East Coast A-Listers (But, Alas, No Horses!)

The screening of Steven Spielberg's epic -- attended by Elizabeth Olsen, Brian Williams, Stephen Daldry and others -- was followed by a buffet dinner during which John Williams' score served as background music and many notables critiqued the film.

Celine Buckens and Jeremy Irvine War Horse - P 2011
Scott Feinberg
Celine Buckens and Jeremy Irvine

Steven Spielberg's epic adaptation of the novel and Broadway play War Horse had its world premiere Sunday night at Lincoln Center's Avery Hall, just feet from where the theatrical production is continuing its blockbuster run. Spielberg was on hand before the film to introduce the vast majority of the film's large ensemble, including the film's three big up-and-comers, 21-year-old Englishman Jeremy Irvine, 21-year-old German David Kross and 15-year-old Frenchwoman Celine Buckens, as well as veterans David Thewlis (who also stars in The Lady) and Emily Watson (who was twice nominated for the best actress Oscar in the 1990s). Regretfully, Spielberg noted, the 18 horses that played the title character "Joey" -- the true star of the film -- were unable to attend.

A wide variety of notable east-coasters stuck around after the film for a lavish buffet dinner (throughout which composer John Williams' booming War Horse score -- the latest in his exclusive 40-year collaboration with Spielberg, who never uses another composer -- was played on a loop). Among those in attendance: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close director Stephen Daldry (who directed Kross in the 2008 film The Reader), Martha Marcy May Marlene star Elizabeth Olsen, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, actor Tony Danza, actor Stephen Lang (Avatar and the Spielberg-executive produced TV show Terra Nova), 2002 best actor Oscar winner Adrien Brody, 1947 best supporting actress Oscar winner Celeste Holm, two-time Oscar nominated actress Sylvia Miles and celebrated singer/movie-dubber Marni Nixon.

PHOTOS: The Making of Steven Spielberg's 'War Horse'

I chatted extensively about the film with a number of the aforementioned guests over dinner and dessert. The most common reactions (spoiler alert):

  • Several moments of the film -- like other Spielberg films that involve war, including and especially Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) -- are so disturbing that some viewers had to look away, in particular the scene in which the horse becomes entangled in barbed wire while running through no-man's land (producer Kathleen Kennedy told me during a Q&A that I moderated on Saturday with many of the film's below-the-line contributors that it was not actual wire, the horse was never at risk of injury, and an animal-rights rep was always on set).
  • Several moments of the film -- like other Spielberg films that prominently feature children, including E.T. (1982) -- are emotionally powerful enough to move even the gruffest of men to tears, particularly the scene in which a temporarily-blinded Albert is reunited with Joey, as well as the film's final scene in which Albert and Joey return to Albert's family farm after the war and Albert is embraced by his parents. (Spielberg is the master at tugging at the heartstrings, and one of his trademark themes is parents and children growing to accept one another.)

PHOTOS: Steven Spielberg on Set

  • Some of the acting is a bit stilted -- Irvine, making his big screen debut, is a bit stiff; Buckens, though lovely, has a scene with a single tear that is a bit much; and the young actor who plays Albert's friend and says on several occasions "Well, look at you," is more than a little grating.
  • Williams' score, while beautiful, is somewhat "derivative" and used too much to guide viewers' emotionals.

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As far as War Horse's best picture Oscar prospects, nobody told me that they plan to put the film in the top spot on their nomination ballot, but all seemed quite certain that it would appear somewhere -- in most cases fairly high -- on it.