Director Gary Ross, who has given us the films Dave and Pleasantville with his latest gives us perhaps the most artfully crafted feel good movie ever made. Sublimely directed, scored, shot and performed, the picture misses greatness by a nose as a result of shortcomings in its script.
Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography (by Ross and Hillenbrand herself) “Seabiscuit” tells the inspirational true story of three men and a horse who defied the odds and made racing history.
The film is set in the late 30s. In a very real sense, the Great Depression is a principle character. This is thanks to the fact that Ross does something exceptionally clever and effective: he plunders the work of Ken Burns, helping himself to a variety of the filmmaker’s signature techniques and, in the process, crossbreeds the old fashioned Hollywood crowdpleaser with the state of the art documentary. Complete with period photographs and narration by historian David McCullough (who provided the voice over for Burns’ masterpiece “The Civil War”), the result is a picture which brings history to life as few mainstream movies have done.
Other principles include Jeff Bridges in the role of millionaire industrialist-turned-horse racer Charles Howard, Tobey Maguire as embittered jockey Red Pollard and Chris Cooper, who gives the film’s most remarkable performance as Tom Smith, an inscrutable cowboy-turned-trainer whose knowledge of horses is exceeded only by his love of them.
And then, of course, there’s Seabiscuit. Despite respectable breeding, the young Seabiscuit is a disappointment to his owners. He’s lazy, eats too much and is much too small by traditional standards for a career as a racer.
The film takes its time getting around to its star though. The first thirty to forty minutes are devoted to the backgrounds of the three men and the paths that led them to one another. Each has suffered a loss and is looking for a fresh start. When Howard’s marriage falls apart in the wake of a family tragedy, the auto magnate winds up adopting the life of a horse man. In search of a trainer and advisor, he happens upon Smith and is taken by both his horse sense and forthrightness.
Not long after, they stumble upon their destiny. There’s a wonderful scene in which the two men first set eyes on Seabiscuit, rearing and defying the efforts of several handlers to restrain him. You can see it in Smith’s eyes: That’s our horse. A few yards away, a young man is loudly fighting off a half dozen stable hands. Ross constructs the sequence in such a way as to draw a parallel between the animal and Maguire’s character. Both are misfits (he’s too big by traditional standards for a career as a jockey). Both are furious. Both are fearless. You can see it in Howard’s eyes: That’s our rider.
And sure enough, the next thing you know, the horse is making headlines across the country winning race after race in defiance of the odds and popular wisdom. The public falls in love with the feisty steed, whose success Howard trumpets as a symbol of the little guy triumphing over wealth and pedigree. When a match race against the Triple Crown winner War Admiral is finally arranged, it’s a total David and Goliath moment. Businesses closed from coast to coast so that people could listen to the radio broadcast. It drew the largest audience in American history. As a public sensation, Seabiscuit was the Beatles and Mohammed Ali rolled into one.
Audiences will have no trouble today imagining how it felt to watch the legend unfold back then. The era is brought vividly to life, every figure in the story is memorably rendered and the races are shot in a revolutionary new way that manages seemingly impossible vantage points above, alongside and, amazingly, inside the thundering pack.
So much is done right it may appear quibbly to direct attention to the little that goes wrong, but Ross and Hillenbrand did make a misstep or three in penning their screenplay. The director’s background may be to blame. Before hitting Hollywood, Ross worked as a speech writer. Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton are former employers. My one gripe with the picture is its propensity for speechifying. Bridges holds forth again and again on the significance of second chances, the unlimited potential of the underdog, his conviction that, even during hard times, anyone can accomplish anything with the proper combination of hard work and heart. The filmmakers spend two hours plus celebrating John Q. Public, but give one the impression they think he needs to be hit over the head to get the picture’s point.
Which is a tad condescending. Worse, it has the effect of snapping the viewer out of the spell of the film and this isn’t in anyone’s interest when the movie voodoo involved is as powerful as this.