Making a genuinely stirring, unabashedly all-American feel-good movie -- the kind that makes you want to stand up and cheer -- has to be one of the most difficult, precision tasks in modern cinema. But writer-director Gary Ross beautifully sidesteps contemporary cynicism in "Seabiscuit," a film that invokes the warm, gratifying, can-do spirit of the uplifting films that once helped people forget the Great Depression two hours at a time.
The miracle success story of a too-small steed and his too-large jockey who together came to dominate and popularize horse racing in the late 1930s, the film is a metaphor for the underdog hope of the era that it captures so transportingly.
Adapted by Ross ("Pleasantville") from the acclaimed book by Laura Hillenbrand, the picture gets off to a unconventional start with a rambling 20-minute prologue -- narrated by David McCullough, the compassionate voice of Ken Burns' PBS documentaries -- that gallops through both general history (the Model T Ford, the stock market crash, prohibition) and detailed backstory (early owners deemed Seabiscuit too diminutive, lazy and willful to be a champion) while trying to look like it's trotting along at a laid-back canter.
By the end of the first reel, Seabiscuit's eventual owner, wealthy entrepreneur Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges in virtuous, down-to-earth mode), has opened a bike shop, franchised a Buick dealership, become rich, bought a ranch, had a son, lost that son in an accident and his wife in a divorce, mourned, remarried and discovered a love for the ponies. In this short time, twenty years in the hard-knocked lives of earthy, instinctive Seabiscuit trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and obstinate, scrappy jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) have flashed before our eyes as well.
But once the film settles into a steady rhythm, all that establishing -- unwieldy as it is -- pays off in both a resonant mood of resolute optimism and a resounding investment in the characters.
Maguire is a sublime choice to play Pollard, whose innate skills as a rider in his teens led his destitute parents to leave him in the hands of a small-time track owner who paid slave wages and encouraged dirty racing. In the actor's blue eyes that sometimes flare with fury, you can see the defeats that haunt Red's psyche. Maguire even has Red Pollard's deviously charming smirk of a smile.
Bridges' pained but passionate performance as the open-hearted Howard is reminiscent of his biographical role as a persecuted automobile innovator in "Tucker: A Man and His Dream." It's a little on the idealistic side (albeit by design), but he has an infectious enthusiasm for the challenges Howard seeks out and the man's faith in the oddball choices he makes. One of those choices was picking Smith, a prairie-living loner from outside racing circles, to head up his search for a thoroughbred.
Fresh off his "Adaptation" Oscar, Cooper brings a sad, soft-spoken naturalistic wisdom to this a horse-whisperer type who saw the potential in matching not the skills but the spirits of Pollard and Seabiscuit -- an angry animal, three hands shorter than the average race horse and literally trained to lose to "better" horses to build those horses' confidence.
While "Seabiscuit" takes place is a romanticized world without vice (exposing Pollard's alcoholism or the gambling that drives horseracing would break the movie's sanguine spell) and sometimes simplifies storytelling through coincidence, Ross and cinematographer John Schwartzman ("The Rookie") recover the film's realism in the vivid electricity they bring to the racetrack scenes. Through gorgeous, extraordinary photography on the track, in the pack and in SteadyCam close-ups they capture the thrill of the ride, the excitement in the crowd and the joy and determination of Pollard and his mount (not to mention some banter between jockeys).
After bonding with Seabiscuit and the other characters as he's retrained to unleash his inborn bravado, when these two punch out of the starting gate with fiery but unruffled gusto, it raises goosebumps that don't subside for the rest of the movie. The effect makes even the smallest detail of race strategy seem fascinating (when to stay off the rail, when to hang back for a burst of speed later -- every race and every competitor are different). It also enhances the buildup toward four major events: the 1938 two-horse "match race" against Triple Crown-winner War Admiral that drew tens of thousands of Seabiscuit fans, the riding accidents that removed both Pollard and Seabiscuit from racing for more than a year, and their miracle comeback that put an exclamation point on this sports legend.
Enhanced by perfectly nuanced touches -- from Randy Newman's stirring, sentimental, but never sappy score, to the race-day anxiety of Elizabeth Banks (the flirty bank teller in "Catch Me If You Can") as Howard's wife, to William H. Macy's Vaudevillian performance as a wiz-bang radio announcer -- "Seabiscuit" is an enthralling homage to old-fashioned Hollywood's ability to kindle the American spirit.
Run time: 140 mins
In Theaters: Friday 25th July 2003
Box Office USA: $120.1M
Box Office Worldwide: $148.3M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 155 Rotten: 46
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, David McCullough as Narrator, Chris Cooper as Tom Smith, Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard, Elizabeth Banks as Marcela Howard, Gary L. Stevens as George Woolf, William H. Macy as Tick Tock McGlaughlin, Royce D. Applegate as Dutch Doogan, Eddie Jones as Samuel D. Riddle, Chris McCarron as Charley Kurtsinger, Michael Ensign as Steamer Owner