Mark Reviews Movies


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens, William H. Macy

MPAA Rating:  (for some sexual situations and violent sports-related images)

Running Time: 2:20

Release Date: 7/25/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

There are three men and a horse. They're all lost in some way or another—kindred spirits of sorts. Their paths cross. They use their natural skills and talents to collectively overcome their own demons. In the process, they become a legendary racing team. If Gary Ross' Seabiscuit sounds like overwrought hokum, you have to understand that Ross is far too smart for that. His screenplay is a delicate balance that weaves between cliché and truth so often that the two are eventually inseparable and indistinguishable, and his direction is that of a passionate, patient storyteller. Ross is a master at grown-up, intelligent fables that deal with identifiable characters and real ideas, so it's no surprise that he takes this real life legend and makes it relevant, heartfelt, and affecting. Seabiscuit is a parable of its era, a complicated time of class strife and national Depression, but the story is simple. It's the kind of success story the country needed at the time, and it must be uncomplicated for reasons of encouraging hope. The film ultimately works so well, though, not because of its symbolic connection to the American experience, but because of its dedication to its central characters.

The tale starts in 1910, when mass production helped spark "the beginning and the end of imagination." Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) works on the line at a Ford automotive plant, but Howard wants more than that. He travels out to San Francisco where he opens a bicycle store. Business starts off badly, but he soon discovers his experience with automobiles is much more profitable. He will become the richest man in California but lose his son in a car accident and his wife in divorce. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is quickly becoming a relic of the past. He's a rancher and horse trainer who is having trouble adjusting to the further taming of the frontier. He stumbles upon an odd sight one day—a barbed wire fence surrounding a dirt road. Soon, he finds himself living on his own and perceived as a crazy drifter by his former colleagues. Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) showed a talent for riding horses early in life, but when the stock market crashed in 1929, his family was left to tough living out West. When Red started to race horses, his parents left him with a family that could provide for him. Now, he's living in a border town, jockeying and boxing for money.

All of these men will get a second chance when Howard's life turns around. He marries again. His second wife is thrown into the background immediately afterward and serves solely as a symbol for his progress, especially as played by Elizabeth Banks, who lends nothing more to the role. This isn't the story of Howard and his new wife, though, and he soon sets his sights on horse racing. He takes on Smith because of his understanding of horses. Smith finds Seabiscuit, an overlooked, repeatedly abandoned colt, and sees something in his eyes. That is the kind of man Smith is. The history of Seabiscuit is related to us in voice-over narration (by David McCullough), a device that has mixed results in the film. I understand Ross' desire to stay true to the source novel by Laura Hillenbrand, but he should trust his keen visual storytelling skills. The introduction to Seabiscuit is the film's most awkward scene, because as we learn, the horse is a MacGuffin not a character. It serves to bring the characters together and represent the progress of the nation. Smith sees similarities between Red and Seabiscuit; they both have a spark—maybe too much of it. Both of them need control, and Smith is the man to help them find it.

He helps Red see reality, shows him the strategy to win, and scolds him for not revealing that he is actually blind in one eye. He's part of a father figure for Red, and Howard is the other, more compassionate side. It's an important relationship for both of them, which we know by the relics of a past family life they both keep (Howard has a game of his son's; Red has the books which his father knew would help him grow in knowledge). As the narrative continues, we begin to forget about the specific developments of these characters; they're already established and are now just part of the story. With the relationships firmly in place, Ross moves on to Seabiscuit's career, and because of his patience, the story elicits real empathy for these people, which means higher investment in the action. The race sequences are intricate and shot at close-range. We understand the strategy of the sport and are allowed more personal glimpses, like the conversations between jockeys in mid-sprint. Off the track, much of the story centers on Howard's attempt to take on the unstoppable War Admiral, owned by east-coast tycoon Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones). The role of Seabiscuit is extended: if it defeats the Admiral, the poor have hope in their fight against those who take their jobs.

Eventually, Howard serves as the mouthpiece for everything we're already thinking. Seabiscuit is a representation of the common man during the Depression. It's no wonder it became so famous—not just because of the wins but because of the sell. Jeff Bridges has a strong screen presence and the salesman side of Howard comes naturally for him. Bridges always displays a calm and collected essence, and his performance here has an added level of sorrow. Chris Cooper is quiet and reserved in a performance that again shows him to be one of best character actors working today. Tobey Maguire has the act of the intelligent misfit down cold, although he does have the misfortune of providing an unnecessary voice-over coda that puts into words everything we already knew. It comes at the film's most emotionally affecting moment, so I can forgive it. William H. Macy rounds out the cast in a small but exact role as sports analyst Tick Tock McGlaughlin that's all in the voice.

I realize that at times I may sound more critical of Seabiscuit than I actually am. The film is one of those inescapably charming and endearing pieces of entertainment that Hollywood thinks it always makes but rarely does. Ross provides the film with breathing room and an exact pace (it's long but never feels so) that allows its characters to grow in our minds and hearts. And for its entire length, it makes us believe in second—and even third—chances. It's a simple idea but isn't that the stuff of which fables—even real ones—are made?

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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