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Seabiscuit   A-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross (based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand)
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Gary Stevens, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy.

Review by Rob Vaux

Sea biscuits were hard, nasty squares of naval rations, built for longevity and not much more. They could literally hammer nails into wood; sailors used to soak them for hours before they became edible. Rough, salty, and thoroughly unpleasant, they nonetheless had a knack for sticking with you and could outlast just about anything. So too was the horse named after them: a dumpy, squat concrete slab of an animal with a funky leg kick and a bad attitude. Seabiscuit was nobody's idea of a winner, but in the hope-starved days of the Great Depression, he became an unlikely champion for a downtrodden nation.

His is the kind of story that Hollywood tells best: the plucky little underdog who picks himself up off the ash-heap and finds redemption in victory against impossible odds. That a movie like Seabiscuit was made is no surprise, especially after Laura Hillenbrand's book on the subject topped the bestseller list. The surprise is what an unqualified success it is. Seabiscuit is a triumph of storytelling craftsmanship, a great film less for its subject matter than for the care it takes in presenting it to us. Director Gary Ross and his talented crew have a profound respect for both the material and the audience. They don't disregard us after they have our money, nor do they rely on the comfort of familiarity to carry the day. Seabiscuit invests thought and energy into its characters, its circumstances, and the ornery racehorse at its heart. It asks us to care only after working its ass off to justify our love.

Certainly, Seabiscuit's characters are hard not to love. The horse itself (portrayed by several different animals) had been dismissed as worthless for years before a trainer named Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, in an uncanny channeling of the late Richard Farnsworth) takes note of his indomitable will. Smith himself is an anachronism, a 19th century cowboy made obsolete by growing development and Henry Ford's gas-powered revolution. He's discovered by millionaire Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who made his money selling Buicks but now faces dwindling resources and the devastating loss of his son. The trifecta is completed with their chosen jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a hard-living bundle of anger who supplements his income with back-alley boxing matches. All three men are damaged, forgotten, and used up. But in Seabiscuit, they see a blooming second chance, and through a string of amazing victories, transform the horse into a national hero.

Most directors would take such material and tart it up, pounding the emotions home with ruthless overkill. But Ross employs a softer technique; he never makes anything unclear, but he trusts the viewers to pick up on the signals rather than dragging us from emotional high to emotional low. He and DP John Schwarzman create images of startling beauty, bound by a narrative that flows with natural grace from one sequence to the next. We come to appreciate not only the horse and the men around him, but the demons that drive all of them and the lengthy road it takes to overcome their failings. The journey itself is the pleasure, for the destination is clear to even the dimmest viewer. Ross' efforts are complemented by his terrific trio of actors (credit also goes to Elizabeth Banks as Howard's second wife, Gary Stevens as a rival jockey, and the great William H. Macy as a lunatic track announcer), and Seabiscuit also boasts some astounding race sequences (straight out of Ben-Hur at times) which compliment the drama rather than competing with it.

Perhaps most impressive is the film's evocation of time and place, and the way it conveys how much the horse mattered at that point in history. Editor William Goldenberg produces an impressive series of black-and-white montages (coupled with David McCullough's voice-over narration) that ties Seabiscuit's travails with the struggling nation around him. When the starting bell goes off at the climactic race, and the scene fades to stills of people gathered around the radio, we don't need a word of explanation; the connection is already clear. Those deeper binds lend Seabiscuit a strong sense of myth... and patriotism too, though not in the callous terms with which we currently define that word. The film celebrates ingenuity, stubbornness, and courage, mixing P.T. Barnum showmanship with iconoclastic nerve. It's the best and the worst of what we are, touching the essence of our national character. Seabiscuit is, above all, an American fable -- and in this grim new millennium, it reminds us how great and wonderful our country can still be.

Review published 07.23.2003.

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