Now Playing: Seabiscuit

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

During a particularly telling moment in this week's Seabiscuit, grizzled old horse trainer Chris Cooper stops a man from shooting his newly lame horse by telling him, "You don't throw away a whole life just because it's banged up a little." This fairly simple message would find it's way throughout the movie, applying not only to a longshot racehorse and his washed up jockey, but to an entire nation suffering under crippling weight of the Great Depression. It's a message that states that hard work, perseverance, and faith in yourself can reap huge rewards, a sentiment as valid today as it was then, and one the film heaps on none too subtly. Subtle or not, a heavy handed moral can do nothing to weigh down this triumph of a film. Seabiscuit doesn't gallop, it soars.

Seabiscuit is not just a movie about a racehorse. If that's all it was, it would make a perfectly good movie of the week on CBS, This is the tale of four characters whose lives come careening together during the economic and societal wreck of the early thirties. One, Charles Howard, played marvelously by Jeff Bridges, is an entrepreneur who starts out in bicycles, moves to cars, and, after a personal tragedy, ends up in the horse racing business. While Howard's character is obviously meant to represent the wealthy faction of the country, it's not financial ruin that drives him, but the pain and loss of the death of a child. That he is able to mentor young jockey Red Pollard is a sort of second chance for him. Pollard, a young man orphaned by the Depression, seems to have every disadvantage when it comes to jockeying. He's too tall, too literate, and worst of all, blind in one eye, a result of a failed boxing career. Tobey Maguire is excellent here, and shows that you can be a box office webslinger and still have serious acting chops. Red seems destined for a life on the skids until he has the luck to fall under the watchful eye of trainer Tom Smith, played by recent Oscar winner Chris Cooper. Smith is a worn out old cowboy, fallen on hard times but still in possession of an amazing ability to work with horses. This character smacks a little of The Horse Whisperer, but the comparison doesn't really detract. The film, smartly cross-cutting all three backstories, finds Howard hiring Smith, who in turn brings together Red and the final member of the quartet.

An allegory for American stick-to-it-ivness in the midst of financial chaos or not, this is still a horse movie. Seabiscuit came from a distinguished family, being the grandson of the great Man O'War, but was quickly relegated to little more than a pacing horse due to his small size and lackadaisical attitude. Eventually he grew depressed and angry, though he had a competitive spark that caused at least one person to take another look. Smith quickly connected 'Biscuit with Pollard and a lifelong friendship was born. The horses were amazing in this movie, and, as you might imagine, there were quite a few of them. The race scenes were fantastic, especially the climactic one with triple crown winner War Admiral.

The pacing in this movie, though thundering during the race scenes, may tend to be a little slow for summer audiences, but I think the high-octane summer blowout is a stereotype we should be working against, not for. There is quite a bit of set-up, but I think you'll find it valuable. One aspect of the film I've run into some disagreement on, particularly with my wife and some of my friends, is the use of sepia-toned actual photographs, cut to during a few tense moments in the film. I felt these quiet montages enhanced the feeling of accuracy, of reality in a film whose story is so amazing that no one would believe it if you just sat down and wrote it. Their contention is that these scenes interrupt the momentum and mess up the pacing of the scene, but you'll have to judge for yourself. Either way, the moments are short enough not to affect the whole film.

Seabiscuit is just the kind of movie I want to see in a summer full of mindless explosion-fests. It's smart, engaging, and best of all, true. It will warm your heart and leave you feeling better than you did when you came in. It may not have any indie-cred, or testosterone-fueled action sequences, but Seabiscuit has something much better: heart. It's a good old fashioned American story of guts and determination, and of the underdog conquering all, and rather than being cliched and cheesy, it's just right. A far cry from winning by a nose, Seabiscuit leaves them all in the dust. Grade: A

Seabiscuit is rated PG-13 for some scary scenes involving horses, language, and adult situations.

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