Dir.: Gary Ross
PG-13, 141 min.
Now playing at area theaters
I fell in love with Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabiscuit: An American Legend for the same reasons that a lot of people did: because the story was great, and because I’d never heard it before. Hillenbrand cannily assumed that Seabiscuit’s sagafrom washed-up claiming horse at age 3 to warmly loved American hero by his retirement at age 7would be fresh news to many, so she built tension from chapter to chapter by detailing, cliffhanger-style, the injuries and adverse track conditions that made the horse’s run remarkable. The bulk of the book’s midsection described the agonizing two-year struggle to arrange a match race between Seabiscuit and his East Coast rival War Admiral, which the author laid out in spellbinding play by play.
I’m guessing that, for the most part, the audience for writer-director Gary Ross’ adaptation of Seabiscuit won’t know how any of the races in the movie end, though the familiar rhythm of “underdog makes good” sports flicks may cue them a little. But it doesn’t matter if you know the score going in. Neither Hillenbrand’s book nor Ross’ movie is about a single achievement so much as they’re about how people (and animals) are transformed by the act of preparing to excel.
Seabiscuit begins a good 30 years or so before the title character shows up, with a lengthy introduction to the men who made the horse. Millionaire auto salesman Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges) becomes a racing aficionado and owner as a way of getting over a family tragedy, while stoic cowboy Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) trains horses with the help of a kind of native intuition, and battered jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) overcomes alcoholism and partial blindness with the same lonely, stubborn rage that got him in trouble in the first place.
Ross establishes the background with what is, in essence, a 45-minute montage driven by Randy Newman music, David McCullough narration and a surfeit of subtly inventive editing and camera movement. It’s a bold opening gambit, and like a lot of daring moviemaking, it doesn’t always work. Ross stays too long on some moments while breezing too quickly past others, and some of his boldfaced dialogue insults the audience’s intelligence, as though he were desperately trying to assure that everyone “gets it.”
But the director accomplishes his goal, establishing a clear vision of a Depression-era United States where excessive faith in industrialization spawned a generation of the obsolete. One of Hillenbrand’s major themes was how Howard, Smith and Pollard transformed the too small, too obstinate Seabiscuit into a champion by reapplying knowledge all but lost when the century turned. The movie follows the same path, showing how the useless were made useful again during a decade of shaken confidence. The public’s own participation in making Seabiscuit an icon proved to be a healing acta restatement of the national character.
If Ross presses too hard on this message, it’s because he himself has faith in the old ways, which translates here to an affection for creaky old Hollywood morality plays. The problem is that Ross often misinterprets the appeal of retro entertainment, ignoring the sophistication and swing of the classics while exaggerating their squareness. (See his misguided directorial debut Pleasantville for further evidence.) At times, corn threatens to overwhelm the more elegant flavors in Seabiscuit, especially when characters serve up lukewarm platitudes like, “He just needs to learn to be a horse again,” and “You don’t throw away a life because it’s banged up a little.”
But the film survives because those lines are true. And just as you don’t quickly dispose of a flawed life, the same could be said of a flawed, crowd-pleasing movie. Seabiscuit has too much going for it to shrug off, starting with Ross’ close adherence to the details of the true story (which he only alters for dramatic effect once or twice), and extending through the thrillingly edited racing sequences, the rich sound design and the glowing John Schwartzman cinematography. The performances are top-notch too, with Bridges, Cooper and Maguire all balancing movie star charisma and acting chops; their characters start as symbolic abstractions, but develop soul.
In the end, Seabiscuit succeeds because it’s an object lesson in how ingenuity is old wisdom recycled for a new age. Passing on the Seabiscuit legend is in the tradition of reinvesting the past with purpose, so that even when the storytellers play on the audience’s emotions, it’s not a shameless act. When an audience cheers Seabiscuit, they’re affirming that they can appreciate the beauty of a skillfully trained long shot. And for once, their self-congratulation is appropriate.
OMG! I would love to see this! Let us all know what we can do…
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