Stars: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Gary Stevens
Director: Gary Ross
Screenwriter: Gary Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Knowing how a story ends doesn’t make its telling any less interesting, particularly the story of Seabiscuit, a runty, abused thoroughbred who became a racetrack legend in the 1930s, beating out much bigger competitors and better pedigrees. It’s because of the remarkable coincidences in the convergence of three men with good hearts and a a good deal of common sense among them that this uplifting old-fashioned American tale unfolds. And, just as back then, the horse comes out the winner.
The movie Seabiscuit begins as an American history lesson introducing its main characters: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), an east coast bicycle repairman who heads west and makes a fortune selling cars at a time when a man with brains and guts could do so. Then there’s Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a gentle horseman with heart and smarts who sees the decline of the open range and finally there’s Johnny “Red” Pollard, (first Michael Angarano as young “Red”, then Tobey Maguire) a bookish lad from a bookish family who was an expert rider. When the depression hits in 1928, these lives are shattered in one way or another and it isn’t until years later when Howard’s good fortunes rise again and his attention turns from cars to horses, that a striking fellowship of misfits is formed.
Howard, an unusually astute man, takes an interest in Smith’s caring approach to training horses and one day hires him. It’s Smith, who has the knack of divining whether a horse has the heart needed to race effectively, who spots Seabiscuit, a rather short, lazy beast who was actually trained to lose, as the diamond in the rough he actually was. And when Smith needs a fearless rider, he spots another diamond in Red Pollard, who by this time had become a mostly angry but gutsy and intelligent young man.
Historically, it was the beginning of Roosevelt’s New Deal, when Americans got a leg up in their lives with government social programs. Pollard was getting a leg up on Seabiscuit for the rides of his life as the little horse goes on to win race after race in thrilling sequences but none so thrilling as the match race arranged by Howard between Seabiscuit and the Triple Crown winner War Admiral that stunned the nation. It was the race of the century, they called it, but Pollard had to sit that one out, having suffered a near fatal spill from another horse and George Woolf (Gary Stevens – a real life hall of fame jockey) has to take over.
Seabiscuit’s tale doesn’t end there. He suffers what should have been a career-ending mishap but miraculously recovers. As for Pollard, the young man who was maimed and should have retired, makes a comeback of his own and this pair went on to win the hearts of the nation yet again.
The film is interlaced with black and white archival photos and serious voiceovers by historian David McCullough, always putting the events into historical perspective. It works for the most part, although in the beginning the set up seems too long and you wonder if this is a horse story, after all. Donm’t worry – it is. The cast is terrific and believable in their roles: Bridges as the patriarch with the patience and the bravado to succeed and Maguire as a jockey who commits his life to betterment. Chris Cooper is a gem. You believe he had spent a lifetime on the range with the tiny pauses he takes as he delivers the simplest of lines. And who better for commic relief than William H. Macy himself as Tick Tock McGlaughlin, a manic radio sports announcer with cowbells, kazoos and gongs for sound effects as he reports breathlessly, using every cliche known to mankind, on the exploits of Seabiscuit and his owner’s run for the gold. Appearing frequently through the race sequences, you won’t get tired of this guy’s delivery. The writing is that good!
Lotta says: The events come as a good kick in the butt to all the main characters. They’re tired and they need it. Two points: more training footage needed showing the horse’s initial breakthrough from abused animal to a sensible one at least and whatever happened to Pollard’s parents? Out of desperation, they left him at a racetrack during the Depression. Did they simply disappear off the face of the earth later that they didn’t know their boy had become a star and want to see him again? Some in the audience might notice this gap. My guess is they were afraid it’d prove too over the top sentimentally to have added it. There’s quite enough sentiment as it is. I did not find it objectionable in this case.
Generally, it’s a breath of fresh old fashioned air and apple pie. A nice movie and actually a good one for the summertime. Break out the lemonade and mint juleps. Also featured is Elizabeth Banks as Howard’s second wife, Marcela. PG-13 – for some language, a sexual situation, brawling and sports-related violence.
Reviewed: July 25, 2003