July 28, 2003 -- “Seabiscuit” is a throwback to the earlier days of Hollywood, when films were made for mainstream audiences, films without a lot of New Age mumbo jumbo, cynicism and political correctness. This is the kind of film that puts a lump in your throat and generates applause from audiences.
Tobey Maguire of “Spider-Man” stars (and is an executive producer of this film) as jockey Red Pollard, who rode the legendary racehorse, Seabiscuit, during the hard times of the Great Depression. Pollard was a hard-luck rider and a poor prizefighter before hooking up with the great horse. This theme holds true for the other two main characters of this tale, Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges of “The Contender”), the owner of the horse, faces his own tragedies, and trainer Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for “Adaptation”) is a cowboy down on his luck before hooking up with Pollard and Howard.
Seabiscuit himself was a hard luck case prior to linking up with the three men. His racing performance was poor and his disposition had gone from lazy to mean after being mishandled by various trainers. The story is uplifting as this wounded horse and the three wounded men somehow end up healing each other, more than once. It is a story of second chances and losers becoming winners. It is all quite improbable, but based on a true story, and a book on the subject by Laura Hillenbrand.
The film, ably directed by Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”), is an interesting combination of drama and documentary, using images from the 1930s and the well-known voice of David McCullough (who has narrated a number of historical documentaries) to provide a historical background for the film. McCullough's voice also provides a grounding of realism for the story. In addition to McCullough, Ross also uses the character of an eccentric radio and newsreel announcer, Tick Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy of “Focus”), to move the story along. Macy, a fine actor, is perfect in the role. McCullough and McGlaughlin give us a sense of how Seabiscuit captured the public's imagination during the depression.
The racing scenes are stunningly captured by cinematographer John Schwartzman (“The Rookie”). These dynamic images put the audience right into the thick of every horse race. The creative editing by William Goldenberg (“The Insider”) helps keep the multiple story lines moving smoothly ahead in parallel. In one scene, Goldenberg cuts away from the horse race unexpectedly to show how most people experienced the race, via radio. This does three things, it shows how people kept track of the race, it shows us how important the race was (the equivalent audience today would be 100 million people) and it creates greater anticipation in the audience to see the rest of the race.
The casting of this film is nearly perfect. The three main characters are fully developed and played perfectly by Bridges, Maguire and Cooper. Ross goes to considerable length to develop these characters. The screenplay (also written by Ross) goes back several years in time to show how these men came to be as they are when they meet Seabiscuit in this most fortuitous conjunction. In addition to Macy, another fine supporting performance is turned in by Gary Stevens, who plays jockey George “The Iceman” Woolf. This is surprising, since Stevens had no acting experience prior to this film. Instead, Stevens is a jockey, and not just any jockey, but one of the greatest ever (4,700 wins, $200 million in earnings, eight triple crown victories). Stevens is now an actor too, and a good one, with plenty of charm, confidence and charisma. He delivers one of the best lines in the entire film, “It's better to break a man's leg than to break his heart.” It is an emotional scene in a film filled with emotional scenes.
There are some critics who don't like this movie. Complaints include the film's message isn't obscure enough, it isn't dark enough, it isn't depressing enough, it isn't cynical enough, it is too uplifting, too obvious making its comparison of the travails of its main characters to the plight of America during the depression, too obvious in its tendency to cheer on the underdog and it is too sweet. You could make an argument for any and all of these complaints, but you know what? None of those things bothered me. In fact, if you don't like this movie, you may have a pulse, but you've got no heart. The film is also put together in a very clever, innovative way. There is also a great musical score by Oscar-winning composer Randy Newman. It's production values are sky high and it is very skillfully crafted and even more skillfully acted. This film is a thoroughbred. It is a winner. This film rates an A.
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