In a summer brimming with high flying angels and gravity defying archaeologists comes a movie designed to appeal to that most neglected segment of the movie-going population, adults. Nothing blows up and there isn’t a flaming helicopter or open running wound anywhere in sight. In an attempt at counter programming Universal has scheduled Seabiscuit to go mano-e-mano against drunken Caribbean pirates, scantily clad adventurers and three dimensional spy kids, hoping to bring in the parents of the kids who have been dropping their allowance money at the box-office all season.
Who knows, it just might work. The last time I checked people over the age of fourteen enjoyed movies too.
Seabiscuit is the inspiring story of a horse who became an American folk hero during the depression years. Everything about this movie screams prestige, from the Academy Award winning cast to the narration by PBS regular David McCullough to the sumptuous art design. Hell, screenwriter / director Gary Ross even used to write speeches for President Clinton! The result is a predictable, but likeable movie that demands nothing more from you than to feel better when you leave the theatre than you did when you came in.
Based on a book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit reintroduces us to one of the great sports stories from the early part of the last century. There was a time when everyone knew the story, he was so famous in fact that on one occasion hundreds of businesses closed for half a day so their employees could tune in to hear Seabiscuit race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral on the radio. These days, though, because Seabiscuit didn’t endorse Nike or Pepsi, his story has been largely forgotten.
The film begins in the heady days before the stock market crash of 1929. Businessman Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) made his fortune selling cars, and promoting his vision of “the future.” After the tragic death of his son, the future doesn’t seem so bright anymore. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is an outsider, shunned by most horse professionals because he believes in healing, not killing wounded animals. At a head taller than any other jockey on the horse racing circuit, Red Pollard (Tobey McGuire) is considered a fringe player, but he loves horses and prefers this life to the alternatives – starving on the streets or getting the tar knocked out of him in underground boxing matches.
Seasbiscuit, an undersized horse of good breeding but little in the way of talent is the center around which each of these men revolve. Through hard work and care Seabiscuit is transformed from a candidate for the glue factory into a champion, and basking in the reflected glory are Howard, Smith and Pollard.
Seabiscuit picks up speed in the middle stretch, after a slow first hour. Much of the opening of the film feels like a history lesson, disrupting the flow of the story. Not that you could easily derail this story. Ross has played fast and loose with the facts – for example, Pollard was actually a mean drunk, not the nice guy presented here – cobbling together a story that sometimes feels like Chicken Soup for the Equine Soul.
Inspirational messages tumble from everyone’s lips, as though pearls of wisdom flow from their mouths as easily as turning on a facet and watching the water coming pouring out. The script overuses several of these nuggets – ie: “Sometimes when the little guy doesn’t know he’s the little guy he can do big things…” – which only reinforces their corny sentiments.
If the dialogue seems stilted, the racing sequences certainly do not. Ross puts the viewer directly in the action in a series of beautifully realised shots that seem to be taken from the horse’s point of view. In those days racing was a brutal sport where jockeys would punch and shove one another in mid-race. Seabiscuit does an admiral job of recreating the tension and aggression involved in the races with long shots that give the viewer the opportunity to follow the action without confusion.
In the end Seabiscuit is clichéd and predictable, but good work by Bridges, McGuire and Cooper coupled with the movie’s indomitable spirit make it a pleasure that is hard to deny.