directed by Gary Ross
starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper
Seabiscuit isn’t a love story, a tearjerker, or a story of heroes and villains — but it is a true story, and sometimes fact can be more marvelous than the best fiction. It’s a simple, Depression-era tale of three men and a horse, all yearning for a chance to reclaim their sense of self-worth.
Tobey Maguire, who could spend the rest of his career playing youthful underdogs, stars as Johnny “Red” Pollard in this skillful adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book. Pollard is a well-educated, oversized, second-rate jockey and third-rate prizefighter, a man whose innate ability with horses is often overshadowed by his fiery temper and painful past. Pollard has not only been beaten with fists, but beaten by life itself. Drifting from job to job, he nonetheless refuses to give up his dream of being a champion.
Meanwhile, another man roams the West, master horse wrangler Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, a man born to be an award-winning supporting actor). Barbed-wire fences and the resulting end of the cowboy lifestyle has left Smith without a home, or a purpose. But a chance meeting with wealthy Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, looking more and more like his father with every film) changes all of that. Howard, an entrepreneur, Buick dealership owner, and no stranger to loss and heartache, has been re-invigorated by new bride Marcella (Elizabeth Banks, at her radiant best). After deciding to dabble in racing, Howard hires the anti-social Smith to find and train a promising horse.
Enter the movie’s namesake. The horseman stumbles across Seabiscuit, a small thoroughbred with a history of abuse, an ill-tempered animal of great lineage that somehow has never been allowed to prove himself a winner. As Smith begins to work his magic with Seabiscuit, he encounters Pollard, who demonstrates a natural affinity with the horse.
Smith’s and Pollard’s efforts in soothing Seabiscuit’s psyche pay off, and the once-derided horse is a phenomenon on the track. Howard intuitively markets the undersized Seabiscuit as a “common man’s racehorse” — and it works. Suffering through hard times, the average joe — working or not — identifies with the horse’s spirit, and Seabiscuit is on his way to becoming a national hero. The only thing standing in his way is the legendary, East Coast-based thoroughbred War Admiral; Howard begins a media campaign for a “match race” between the two horses.
Seabiscuit and the trio of men attract two allies, characters who lend a great deal to the film’s charm. Gonzo radio announcer “Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin, brilliantly portrayed by William H. Macy, lends his support on the airwaves; dashing, handsome-as-hell jockey George “the Iceman” Woolf (convincingly played by real-life ace jockey Gary Stevens, in his film debut) a longtime friend of Pollard’s, comes to the rescue when the chips are down.
Seabiscuit’s gorgeous cinematography will do for horse racing what Breaking Away did for cycling and what The Natural did for baseball. The suspenseful racing scenes are so vividly filmed, preview audiences cheered at their conclusions. But is it a classic “horse movie” on the level of Phar Lap, The Black Stallion, and The Man From Snowy River? Not quite, for this nearly-perfect film has one minor flaw: apart from altering Pollard’s past a tiny bit, Seabiscuit follows the true story very closely — and the true story had no adversary (other than the oblivious War Admiral), no villain or common enemy to build an over-the-top, epic drama around.
Actually, when one thinks about it, there is a common adversary to be found in Seabiscuit — the dignity-robbing Great Depression. However, in these particular times of hardship — “hardship” often meaning waiting another year to trade-up their SUV — many folks will have a difficult time identifying with that struggle, or absorbing the lessons that should be learned from it. But, regardless of financial status, sex, age, or national origin, no one will be disappointed with Seabiscuit — the best family film of the year. ” Live action” family film, that is.
Note: Many people who see this movie will want to know the full story of Seabiscuit’s and the human principals’ lives. PBS’ online magazine, http://www.pbs.org/, has thorough and fascinating profiles of each individual.