Seabiscuit canters handsomely around the track less like a scrappy race horse than a slightly overfed show horse, playing to the crowd, confident that there’s no real competition breathing down its neck.
A Genuine Emotional Uplift
It is right. In a summer when even relatively promising movies offer only modest thrills and laughs (cf. Pirates of the Caribbean; Terminator 3), Seabiscuit delivers genuine emotional uplift. Go ahead and roll your eyes at the overly scripted deployment of platitudes like “You don’t throw a whole life away just ’cause it’s banged up a little.” When the Biscuit breaks into a run for the first time after a crippling injury, I bet you’ll have a lump in your throat.
Adapted by director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) from the acclaimed book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit is based on the real-life story of a no-account race horse whose second chance at championship captured the imagination of Depression-era America. Seabiscuit’s improbable comeback (or comebacks) and underdog fighting spirit resonated with a nation looking for a comeback of its own. This populist appeal was only enhanced by the men in the horse’s life: affable, media-savvy novice buyer Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, K-PAX), pugnacious, overgrown jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man), and eccentric old cowboy and horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, Adaptation).
As Howard, a wealthy automobile entrepreneur, breezily puts it in a self-promoting whistle-stop press conference: “What are [the competition] afraid of? Our horse is too small… our jockey is too big… our trainer is too old… and I’m too dumb to know the difference!” Yet when that oversized jockey and that undersized horse face off against larger horses and smaller jockeys… watch out!
Overplayed at Times, but Still Inspiring
The story of Seabiscuit’s rehabilitation is also a story of second chances for these three men, each of whom reclaims something of himself as a result of his involvement with Seabiscuit. For Howard, a man whose involvement with automobiles once led him to say “I wouldn’t pay five dollars for the best horse in America” before his life was shattered by a grimly ironic tragedy, both the troubled horse and the troubled young jockey represent an opportunity to make up for something missing in his life. For Red Pollard, a gifted rider who was abandoned by his parents at a young age after his family was ruined by the Depression, Howard is a kind of father figure and the horse an equine alter ego. As for Smith, the taciturn cowboy trainer whose world is fast vanishing before the industrial progress represented by Howard’s automobiles, helping to turn a washed-up, broken-down track horse into a champion is a vindication of his life’s work.
As he did in Pleasantville, writer-director Ross (whose writing credits also include Big and Dave) overplays his thematic points, not trusting the audience to get it (oddly so, since several plot points, especially in the first hour, are only hinted at). For example, scenes paralleling Seabiscuit and Pollard (in which, for instance, the horse and the jockey are both rebelliously lashing out at a number of adversaries, or in which both have been crippled in accidents) are unnecessarily underscored and re-underscored with overly explicit camerawork. Again, a father’s grief for his dead son is symbolized by two of the boy’s former possessions, and every time Ross wants to evoke the loss of the son, the father invariably reaches for one of these two objects.
Yet Seabiscuit has nothing of Pleasantville’s smug self-satisfaction or chronological snobbery against its period setting. Instead, it’s sincerely nostalgic and genuinely good-hearted, an inspiring tale of flawed but sympathetic heroes and no real villains (the haughty owner of illustrious Triple Crown winner War Admiral isn’t really an antagonist, since the story isn’t about one horse beating another, but about a horse and three men overcoming adversity).
Some Moral Drawbacks Amidst the Joy
The film does have some moral drawbacks. A scene with Pollard and some other jockeys at a Tijuana brothel adds little to the depiction of Pollard’s character; granted that the real Pollard apparently frequented such establishments, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling dramatic reason for this sequence. Fortunately, it’s an isolated scene — which is partly what makes it gratuitous (apart from this one scene, and some profanity, Seabiscuit might have been suitable for some younger viewers who would surely enjoy this underdog horse tale), but also limits its moral impact on the basically heartwarming story.
There’s real joy and excitement in the depiction of the actual races. Cinematographer John Schwartzman photographs the galloping horses and their riders with the same flair and poetry that he brought to the baseball in The Rookie; his camera brings us right into the thick of the thundering horses, over their heads, and, in one sublime moment, gives us a horse’s-eye view of victory. The film takes the time, too, to give viewers a sense of the level of strategy that goes into horse racing, how much depends on knowledge of the competition and tailoring one’s approach to the specific circumstances of each race.
Maguire brings some depth and complexity to the role of Pollard, Bridges is expansive and charismatic as Howard, and Cooper, in an impressive follow-up to his bravura Oscar-winning performance in Adaptation, vanishes into the role of the soft-spoken, preternaturally intuitive horse-whispering cowboy. Stevens’ Elizabeth Banks is appealing as Howard’s young second wife, and William H. Macy mugs entertainingly as gimmicky radio announcer “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin.
Adding welcome authenticity is real-life Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, a natural whose cool self-assurance and presence enhances every scene he’s in. Stevens plays great jockey George “Iceman” Woolf, Pollard’s friend and rival, who climbs into Seabiscuit’s saddle for a critical race after Pollard is injured. The sidelining of Pollard for this race, which initially seems anticlimactic (though historical), turns out to add a new level of tension, as Woolf is obliged to take on faith what he’s been told about Seabiscuit’s character and spirit, and so must uneasily adopt a strategy that flies in the teeth of all his instincts.
Documentary-style narration and period photography are used to situate the story in its Depression-era setting. Fans of the book may lament the film’s liberties and abridgements, though the filmmakers seem to have done the book a reasonable level of justice within the 2 1/2-hour running time. (A few loose ends seem like continuity errors, such as a scene in which Pollard awkwardly asks to borrow money from Howard, though it was never clear to me what he wanted it for. And after establishing that Pollard’s parents left him as a boy to earn a living for himself, the film should have established whether or not he ever saw them again.)
While not great moviemaking, Seabiscuit has a great subject and a great story to tell, and its winning theme of the little guy with the heart of a champion may just leave you feeling great as well.
2003, Universal. Directed by Gary Ross. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens. Narrator: David McCullough. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand.
US Conference of Catholic Bishops: A-III Adults
A brothel sequence with some comically intended lewd behavior and a bedroom scene (no explicit nudity); remarriage after divorce; implied induced vomiting for weight loss; crude language and profanity; sports-related violence and injuries.
Overall Recommendability: B Recommended
Artistic & Entertainment Value: 3 stars (out of four) Well made
Moral and Spiritual Value: Between “Basically harmless” and “Positive” in the moral category. Problematic in the spiritual category.
Appropriate Audience: Adults
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Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website is the Decent Films Guide.
(c) 2003 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.