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The Little Horse that Could
on October 14, 2003
The term "feel-good movie" is, like "popcorn flick" and "chick flick," one of those sweeping and usually inaccurate generalizations that are used to color any number of superficially similar films. If the definition is stretched broadly enough, "feel-good" can be used to describe anything from Chariots of Fire to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In the summer of 2003, however, there were two movies for which "feel-good" was both accurate and complimentary. One was Bend it Like Beckham. The other was Seabiscuit.
For those not familiar with the story, Seabiscuit was a famous racehorse of the Depression era, competing between 1936 and 1940. His career is chronicled in the marvelous book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand's lengthy, detail-rich narrative is, like many great books, too complex to transfer note for note to film, but writer-director Gary Ross takes on the formidable challenge of bringing Seabiscuit's tale to life on the big screen. Ross wisely chooses to follow Hillenbrand's lead, building the story around the three men who respectively owned, trained, and raced the horse: wealthy auto salesman Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), cowboy Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire). Ross makes shrewd choices about which details and characters to delete, which events to compress or eliminate altogether, and which aspects of the story to highlight. The result is a wonderful character-driven drama, a story about the power of friendship, love, hope, courage, and never giving up.
Ross takes his leisurely time introducing the three men. Seabiscuit himself doesn't even make an appearance until about an hour into the movie, and when he does, he's the catalyst that brings the trio together; the trials and triumphs they experience are all the more satisfying because the viewer understands each character's history. In the process of rebuilding this broken-down racehorse and making him a champion, the three men, each wounded in his own way, also heal each other and mend their broken lives. Inadvertently, they provide millions of Americans with an unlikely cultural icon, an underdog hero who gives ordinary people a badly-needed dose of hope.
The story, with its ups, downs, and amazing comeback, might seem mere Hollywood contrivance were it not based on actual events. Even the most casual moviegoer pretty much knows how the tale will end, but that doesn't diminish the enjoyment of it in the least. The tone of the film helps sell its credibility: warmly sentimental without being saccharine or manipulative, funny without being crude or cynical, beautiful without being artsy or pretentious. The tragic moments are doubly powerful because they're filmed with an eloquent understatement. Ross employs a wonderful visual shorthand, conveying just as much in images--if not more so--than he does in dialogue. He delivers a lot of the film's humor with the same technique: abundant one-liners and quick reaction shots produce any number of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments.
The cast is uniformly outstanding. Bridges gives a terrific performance; he makes Howard warm and charming and fatherly and likeable, a great guy with a big heart. Cooper's role as Smith is smaller, but he hits exactly the right notes as a survivor of America's vanishing frontier, a man more comfortable with horses than with people. But the undisputed star of the show is Maguire, who is simply luminous as Pollard--as well he should be; the jockey's role was written specifically for him. Pollard has been wounded more deeply and more often then the other two leads, and perhaps for this reason, the viewer's heart goes out to him the most strongly: he's angry and vulnerable, scarred physically and psychologically, but funny and likable and literate, all at the same time. Maguire develops the character beautifully as the movie progresses; the viewer sees Pollard slowly let down his barriers and make connections with his new surrogate family.
As wonderful as each performances is, the chemistry that the actors have together is even more notable. It's true ensemble acting; the cast as a whole adds up to more than the sum of its individual players. The supporting folks are also terrific. Elizabeth Banks gives a strong turn as Howard's warm and supportive second wife, Marcela; real-life jockey Gary Stevens makes a confident acting debut as legendary rider George Woolf; and William H. Macy is hilarious as fictional radio personality "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin, who provides much of the movie's humor.
Of course, this is also a movie about horse racing, and Ross doesn't disappoint. The races are filmed with an intimate excitement that conveys the beauty, pulse-pounding exhilaration, and sometimes brutality of thoroughbred racing. However, unlike many action movies, the racing sequences never take over the story; they are all the more breathtaking because the viewer knows and cares about the characters who are pouring their lives into these glorious animals.
Visually, the movie is a feast. The 1930s are re-created fabulously, from the cars and towns and trains to the characters' smart suits and hats to the wonderful old racetracks. The widescreen cinematography is magnificent, and the lovely score by Randy Newman infuses the movie with equal measures of beauty, humor, and nostalgia.
The main complaint critics have leveled at the film center around the use of voice-over narration (handled ably by historian David McCullough) and archival photographs to provide some historical context for the story. This was a risky choice artistically, but it enables Ross to convey the social forces at work in Seabiscuit's world without taking awkward detours in plot and character development. For the most part, the narration is used sparingly and in the right places. A couple of the later sequences could probably have been trimmed out, but they hardly ruin the movie.
Probably the only mis-step Ross makes is drawing too many overt parallels between the rebuilding of the racehorse and the rebuilding of the nation via Roosevelt's New Deal. Ross makes it fully clear in the story that Seabiscuit had become a symbol of hope; he didn't need to use the narrative sequences to hammer this point in quite so strongly. Sixty thousand people pouring into a racetrack to watch a horse run for two minutes is testament enough to the affection that Seabiscuit inspired. But even here, Ross isn't too far off the mark: the New Deal may have provided jobs, but Seabiscuit gave people something intangible: the belief that they, too, could overcome the odds and triumph over adversity.
Although best seen on a big screen, the DVD will no doubt be chock-full of extra goodies. In the theater or at home, viewers can be assured their money will be well-spent: Seabiscuit is a movie that satisfies on pretty much every level.