The Seabisquit story is a great yarn, one that lends itself to romanticizing
one of the most troubled and desperate times in America. And director Gary
Ross does it well enough to convince you, here in the 21st Century, that
every person in the country, down to the most reduced by circumstances, had
racing and the Seabiscuit phenomenon on their minds. Oddly, that's almost
true. Gambling is a big draw in bad economic times and, if that weren't
enough, you have the unexpected victories of a beat up jockey riding a beat
up horse to elevate downtrodden spirits.
With such mythical elements, director Gary Ross puts together a warm and
handsome production, a beautiful cast and a well structured script that has
the right chemistry for a mainstream shot in the arm that drills through the
period pic cliches.
It starts on a virtual PBS channel as the estimable narrator David McCullough
takes us through the black and white years when cars replaced horses as a
mode of transportation, when the pre-crash atmosphere was a Charleston dance.
and when production line worker Charles Howard turned himself into a baronial
entrepreneur capable of seeing himself through the stock market crash as a
still well-heeled racehorse owner.
As a somewhat oversimplified story would condense it, he had a keen eye for
the special quality in men and zeroed in on the two he needed faster than a
speeding casting director. From afar he spots horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris
Cooper) stroking one that he had rescued from the glue factory. "You
don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little," he states
in his quiet, credo-expressing way. That's good, 'cause it's the theme of
It applies as well to the well worn down jockey they wind up with, Johnny
"Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a man with innate racing talent that's been
submerged under a sea of bad luck. He's the human long shot to match Howard's
acquisition of a horse that everyone's crossed off their possibility
sheet, the well pedigreed and underperforming Seabiscuit.
Aside from the grand sweep of the story, there are little building blocks
that provide interesting insight into the world of horseracing. I
particularly liked the detail of how carefully oversized Pollard (for a
jockey) controlled his diet. In a dinner scene with lavish heaps of food, we
see him barely eating. Later, when he thinks he's lost his mount, he gorges
to make up for lost nourishment. And, when it looks like destiny will put
him on a horse again, he goes virtually bulimic again.
Another nicely observed part of jockey behavior is the cursory
acknowledgement of competing riders when meeting on the track for the first
time. Hmmmpph, a nod. Nothing more said. Nice observation of such a
moment, with the feel of reality.
Maguire does it again, with his quiet, gentle, sensitive guy that we
responded to in "Cider House Rules", and again the unlikely athlete as in
"Spiderman." He has a way
to make you put doubts about physical prowess aside. Jeff Bridges fills the
screen with the solidity he patented for "Tucker" and Chris Cooper enriches
the saga with his dependable unswervability.
Venturing further down the cast list, we come to an over-the-top William H.
Macey as a race announcer cum carny huckster and Elizabeth Banks in a window
dressing role as Howard's dutiful wifey.
Like said, it's a great yarn, told in such a way as to envelope you
in its inspirational arms, encouraging a root-for-the-underdog response. It
touches all the sports drama requirements without getting into anything sick
or twisted enough to compromise the PG-13 rating. And, though Seabiscuit
might not be War Admiral at the boxoffice, it shouldn't have too great a hit
~~ Jules Brenner