When I first heard of Seabiscuit I thought to myself: "A movie about racing?" Then I thought to myself: "A movie about a horse?" But then I did some researching and I realized that movie is not really about racing, but rather about Seabiscuit's spirit, the human spirit, the American dream, and the times during which he was living. The journalist I admire most, Walter Winchell, even named Seabiscuit as the 10th most popular newsmaker in 1938.
This was certainly unforeseen, since Seabiscuit was merely an overworked, underachieving, dung-colored horse, with stumpy legs that wouldn't completely straighten. It was the horse's spirit that made him one of the most remarkable thoroughbred racehorses in history. This with the help of Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a West Coast trainer, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a beat-up, failing jockey, and millionaire Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) who turned the horse's career around. Those were the 1930s and Americans longed to escape the grim realities of Depression-era life. Seabiscuit became a workingman's hero, selling out even the cheap-seats. "For a brief moment in America," says Laura Hillenbrand, author of the best-selling Seabiscuit, "a little brown race horse wasn't just a little brown race horse. He was the proxy for a nation. There is something quintessentially American about everyone in this story. [It's about] the triumph over hardship -- that's the journey toward the American dream."
There were many rumors as to where Seabiscuit's speed came from. One source even claimed that he had it on "good authority" that Seabiscuit is given two gallons of beer to drink before each race. Nice guess, but no cigar. The real secret behind Seabiscuit's success is his big heart (on more levels than one). And that is what Seabiscuit the movie has in common with the horse.
The movie has heart. That heart lies in the story and within the characters that gallop within it. Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Tobey Maguire all give solid performances. There isn't much emotional connection between the audience and the characters at first, but slowly, much like Seabiscuit's antics, they grow on you. Jeff Bridges eventually lets sentiment in, Chris Cooper allows wisdom and Toby McGuire oozes with determination, pain, love, soul, and healing. And there is also that radio announcer by the name of Tick Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy) who sprouts laughs from the audience as he throws in corny sound effects while breathing the news into the microphone for the world to hear. Almost, and I do mean almost, as good as my Walter Winchell.
But the horse is the real star. The movie manages to capture the character of the horse. When you look at its eyes, Seabiscuit is no different than a silent actor. There is such strong emotional intensity within the horse and within the races that director Gary Ross manages to capture on film.
Where Ross goes astray though is when he attempts to intertwine a documentary within a film. Just as a scene in the film begins to pick up, it is undercut by historian David McCullough's narration. Not only does it destroy the momentum that the film has been building, but it also does this for the sake of leaving nothing new with us. Any reasonably educated person realizes what the depression-era must have been like and what made Ford's cars affordable. What we don't know is what it felt like to be there at the time. The film does a solid job of showing us what the atmosphere was like, so why Ross decided to also tell us what was going on is beyond me.
But despite its flaws of filmmaking, Seabiscuit still manages to race straight into our hearts; it introduces us to interesting characters and brings forth a positive message about love, strength, and kindness along the way. A film that can do all that, is worth seeing.
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