U.S. Release Date:
July 25, 2003
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross
Producer: Gary Barber (executive), Roger Birnbaum (executive), Robin Bissell (executive), Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall
Composer: Randy Newman
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy
Running Time: 2 hours and 9 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (language, some sexual situations and violent sports-related images)
Hollywood's latest horse movie Seabiscuit is a steady trot down a well-traveled path. With top production values, an inviting landscape and a character-driven plot (based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend), writer and director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) spins Seabiscuit's tale as a parallel to American history.
Beginning with a narration by historian David McCullough, Ross introduces a trio of men who will bring the horse to the races: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a self-made automobile businessman, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), an old cowboy who knows how to handle a horse, and Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a hot-headed prizefighter.
Seabiscuit is their, and presumably America's, story. Howard rises to become an automobile dealer, Smith wanders, Pollard pops off and each man is cast under a dark cloud, coinciding with the stock market crash of 1929. By the time the Depression sets in, the businessman has lost his son, the cowboy has lost his way, and the red-haired fighter has lost his purpose.
They need a winner, or, more precisely, a loser whom they can transform into a winner. Uniting for a common goal is not a bad plot premise, but Ross's execution is flawed. The set-up takes too long—Seabiscuit doesn't appear for the first third of the movie—and by the movie's mid point, we're left with a series of snapshots, too quick to make a lasting impression.
In order to root for the loser, the audience must see evidence to the contrary, and Ross doesn't deliver. Instead, he emphasizes the trio's reactions, not their choices. Howard, Smith and Pollard are more types—ambitious businessman, simple cowboy, impulsive Irishman—than men.
When the horseracing finally starts, something's missing. Without genuine feeling for the men who own, train and ride Seabiscuit (who is played by seven different horses not including scenes with computer-generated images), their trials are contrived. The outcome of every race is predictable.
McCullough's narrative repeatedly rings false. After a touching scene in which jockey Pollard is fed a bowl of soup by Bridges's self-made businessman, McCullough prattles on about the glory of FDR's social programs, his voiceover accompanied by black and white photos of men at soup kitchens.
Seabiscuit has some fine moments. The racetrack scenes are thrilling, as the sound of the hooves matches the rhythmic motion of a cluster of strong and beautiful animals, the designers—especially costume designer Judianna Makovsky—authentically evoke the Depression era, and John Schwartzman's photography is often stunning.
Though billed as the star, Seabiscuit is not Tobey Maguire's movie, and, except for William H. Macy as a radio announcer, the cast is weak. Jeff Bridges basically offers a toned-down version of his automobile businessman from Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Chris Cooper's simple cowboy borders on simple-minded, which hardly makes him convincing as a top trainer. Elizabeth Banks as the second Mrs. Howard is both too young and too modern.
For all its flaws, Seabiscuit tells a story that, like Ross's Pleasantville and Dave, attempts to dramatize idealism. Yet this is why it loses momentum.
The three lost souls are defined by, not in command of, what happens. And, it must be said, what happens—a damaged horse restored by three injured men for a moment of glory—is not extraordinary, which makes Seabiscuit a form of counterfeit heroism that leaves one yearning for the real thing.
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