Seabiscuit (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Seabiscuit is the great hope of the adult movie-going audience: a summer motion picture that is not designed to appeal to teenage boys. Ordinarily, one might think it would be a risk on Universal's part to release the movie in late July, but the average viewer is probably ready for something that doesn't feature explosions and chase scenes, and Seabiscuit is the kind of inspirational drama that generally plays well 12 months a year. The movie follows a time-honored, easily predictable path to victory and redemption. The script is perhaps more high-minded than the material deserves, but director Gary Ross understands how to compose a motion picture, and, even though Seabiscuit is a little on the long side, it works more often than not. In short, it's a nice antidote to the summer blahs.

The movie generally follows the outline of Laura Hillenbrand's book of the same name, which chronicles the story of the racing horse Seabiscuit (one of the great sports success stories of depression-era America). Everyone loves an underdog, and this movie has a quartet of them. There's businessman Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who made a fortune by selling cars in the Roaring Twenties, then lost his zest for life when his son died in an accident and his first wife left him. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is a horse trainer who believes in caring for, not killing, lame animals. Most "reputable" racers view him as a fringe lunatic. Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is a failed boxer and too-tall jockey who has spent much of his life on the streets and bus-stop benches. And Seabiscuit has been a disappointment to nearly everyone who has owned him. Despite a good pedigree, he has turned into a consistent loser.

After re-marrying, Charles turns his interest from cars to horses. Having little knowledge about animals, he hires Tom as his horse whisperer. Tom in turn discovers Seabiscuit. He likes the horse's spirit, and thinks he can be a winner. Tom also brings Red on board, believing that he, like Seabiscuit, can be reclaimed. After re-training the animal to abandon his loser's mindset, Charles enters him in a race at Santa Anita Park. Soon, the underdog is winning races and setting records. At that point, Charles sets his sights on a bigger target: he wants to race (and beat) War Admiral, a Triple Crown winner. After much wrangling, the one-on-one match finally takes place, in November 1938 at Pimlico (War Admiral's "home track").

Seabiscuit is Rocky in a saddle, with Hollywood-enhanced feel-good impulses oozing from every frame. That's not a bad thing, especially if you're a sucker for underdog-triumphant sports movies. Don't be fooled into thinking Seabiscuit is a history lesson - it plays fast-and-loose with some of the facts, but one could argue that the changes make for better drama. (For example, in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, Seabiscuit ran second, not last, for most of the race, before coming from behind to win.)

The intent of the movie is to show the parallelism between Charles, Tom, Red, and Seabiscuit, but it overplays its hand. The connections are too obvious (such as a scene in which both Red and the horse have similar-looking casts on their legs). A little subtlety would have been more rewarding. And I could have done without cornball lines like "The future is the finish line," "Sometimes when the little guy doesn't know he's the little guy, he can do big things," and "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little." (I suppose it's possible to argue that campy dialogue is part of the movie's charm.)

The acting is on the high level one would expect from this cast. Jeff Bridges is earnest and likeable, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the character he inhabited in Tucker. Tobey Maguire, looking nothing like Spider-Man, does a credible job as Red, although this is not Oscar material. The best of the three leads is, perhaps expectedly, Chris Cooper, who, despite limited screen time, develops Tom into an intriguing and sympathetic figure (one senses he would rather be with horses than people). Seabiscuit is played by about a dozen different horses, but, to an untrained eye like mine, they blend seamlessly. My one complaint is about William H. Macy, an actor I greatly admire. Macy's over-the-top, for-laughs performance as track announcer Tick Tock McGlaughlin is so out of place that it quickly grates. It's like bringing a clown on stage during "Swan Lake."

As with his previous effort, Pleasantville, director Ross displays a powerful ability to evoke a time and place. Throughout Seabiscuit, we feel like we're back in the '30s. This is the most successful sports movie since The Natural in establishing a period piece setting. One could argue that Ross errs in using David McCullough to provide a history lesson as part of his superfluous voiceover narration, but younger viewers who know little about the Great Depression may find this contribution useful. When it comes to filming the races, Ross elevates the energy level by employing unconventional shots that don't call attention to themselves, and avoiding fast cutting that might result in audience confusion. We see plenty of third-person and first-person perspectives.

Seabiscuit's strongest weakness is not the inclusion of Tick Tock McGlaughlin, McCullough's narration, or its manipulative tendencies. Instead, it's the uneven and occasionally uninvolving first hour. Although necessary to introduce all the characters and establish the circumstances, this part of the movie is choppy and emotionally stunted. We are, for example, supposed to feel deeply for Charles when he loses his son. But it's too early, and we don't know the character well enough. Eventually, Seabiscuit settles into a nice rhythm, and, as it enters the stretch run, it exhibits all the necessary elements of a good sports movie. Like the horse it's named after, Seabiscuit has a lot of heart, and, in the end, that's what won me over.

Seabiscuit (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2003-07-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1