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SEABISCUIT(director/writer: Gary Ross; screenwriter: from the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand; cinematographer: John Schwartzman; editor: William Goldenberg; music: Randy Newman; cast: David McCullough (Narrator), Jeff Bridges (Charles Howard), Chris Cooper (Tom Smith), Tobey Maguire (Red Pollard), Gary Stevens (George Woolf), Elizabeth Banks (Marcela Howard), William H. Macy (Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin), Dyllan Christopher (Frankie Howard), Eddie Jones (Samuel Riddle); Runtime: 141; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Jane Sindell/Gary Ross; DreamWorks Pictures; 2003)
“A bloated inspirational story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The knobby-kneed Seabiscuit is a winner by four and a half lengths — on the track. But as a film it seems too sugary, overlong, pretentious and stifling. The real populist horse story still remains the real thing, as the inflated dramatics are unnecessary and only further distract from an already powerful tale. During the colt’s challenge match race for a hundred grand with the current Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938 in Baltimore’s Pimlico, where 40 million Americans listened on radio and FDR delayed a news conference for an hour to listen to the race, the people’s choice from the West Coast beat the perfectly bred more physical horse from the East Coast handily in the only time they ever raced. Many “Sport of Kings” fans consider that the most exciting race ever.

Frank Capra couldn’t have made this more of a feel-good film for the masses. Ross makes it into a bloated inspirational story that has him too much in love with the horse story to stop from self-congratulating himself for telling the story with so much reverence and on top of that there’s a nagging flag-waving rags-to-riches story piled on, that cleans up the Depression-era picture in too much of an antiseptic way to be convincing. The filmmaker seems better at cheerleading and pointing out how popular Seabiscuit was to the common man than in capturing on film the kind of narrative that exudes what made the horse’s popularity with the public so endearing. It all seemed so flat. The best parts of this good looking and well-crafted film seemingly were left out in the paddock and when it came time to put up–it didn’t finish in the money.

Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”) knows and loves horse racing and Laura Hillenbrand, whose best-selling and critically praised book from two years ago, originally a magazine story, served as the basis for the film. Ms. Hillenbrand is a racing horse expert and an excellent author. What the film got correct is many little details about racing and how being a jockey might very well be the most dangerous profession in all sports, and how they trash talk among themselves to get an edge for the race. Their fatal injuries are greater than in any other sport, including auto racing. The film even gets a fine performance from the Hall of Fame and three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Gary Stevens as George Woolf. The film’s main assets are in its excellently photographed though conventional recreated horse racing scenes and the excellent casting of the leads–Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper. They all wear the 1930s clothes well, but are not asked to do much but look the part. Tobey has wavy fire-engine red hair that looks good when a breeze hits it. Bridges seems to be playing his Tucker role again, but his character is never fleshed out.

The film’s greatest handicap was that it lacked a true heart, though its story is based on the small horse who wins because he has a bigger heart than most other bigger horses. After Seabiscuit’s death they weighed his heart and found it to be 16 pounds double the weight of the average thoroughbred. The filmmaker also over inflates the story by having the historian David McCullough, whose richly expressive voice did wonders for Ken Burn’s documentaries, try to add weight by ensuring us that this was a real important story. I don’t think we needed such convincing, and the narration seemed to be overkill and misplaced here.

The film’s mantra revolves around this inspirational message: “You don’t throw a whole life away just ’cause it’s banged up a little.” During the 1930s three broken down men come together with a broken down horse and inspire a nation that things might look bad but the future can be bright. Charles Howard (Bridges) goes from a San Francisco bicycle repairman with 21 cents in his pocket to a millionaire auto dealer magnate and then loses a good portion of his wealth during the Crash. His marriage dissolves after his young son Frank dies in a car accident. Tom Smith (Cooper) has grown old and disappointed that his cowboy way of life is disappearing. The honest horse trainer and farrier is discovered by Howard talking to a crippled horse and healing him not to race again, but to just regain his dignity. John “Red” Pollard (Maguire) was inspired to read the classics by his prosperous Irish father, but when the Depression became too unbearable Red’s parents deserted him and left him to work at the track. He later earned extra money by boxing. The three men unite as if it were destined. Howard remarries a gorgeous woman he meets at a Tijuana racetrack, Marcela (Banks), and tries for a second chance of living out the American Dream by buying a race horse. He hires as his trainer Tom who gets him to purchase Seabiscuit, a down-and-out horse small horse at 15 hands. Tom immediately feels at one with Seabiscuit on eye contact when he sees him for the first time on a race track. The horse was a loser as a two year old, and the established trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons was glad to have his owner sell him for a bargain basement price. Red who is 5 feet 7, big for a jockey, but whose weight doesn’t go over 117 pounds, is hired by Tom because he has a gentle way with the horse and the same fiery spirit as his ride. Tom discovers the horse was abused and refused to run for the previous trainer who thought the horse was lazy, and he sees his job as “teaching the horse to be a horse again and learning how to win.”

The tale covers in length how the loner storyteller Red and the knowledgeable horseman Tom got the horse to win and how the good-hearted Howard, who was a natural publicist and responsible for enlarging the myth about Seabiscuit, remained loyal when it was discovered Red was blind in one eye and later when he took a spill working out another horse as a favor to another trainer just before the match race with War Admiral and broke his leg in 12 places. Howard offered to scratch Seabiscuit but Red insisted that his friend George “The Iceman” Woolf ride him. Woolf happens to be one of the greatest jockeys of his time. The film ends on an upbeat note, with all three characters looking good and the courageous horse having grown to legendary status. In real life Seabiscuit–the son of Hardtack, descendent of the great Man-O-War–was retired after winning on a comeback after an injury at Santa Anita and became a pet in Howard’s California ranch home, but he sired a number racehorse (none were great). His legend not only remained but grew and even today he’s considered one of the greatest race horses ever. Red unfortunately couldn’t heal all the scars from the past and his alcoholism grew worst and he never rode again, instead became a groom who looked older than his years. The film never touches on this problem that plagued Red all his life. Tom was involved later on with some kind of minor doping of horses scandal and his days on the track ended. All three never reached the limelight again after Seabiscuit retired.

The film’s comedy was delivered by a fictionalized character played by William H. Macy. He’s a motor-mouth sports radio announcer named “Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin who accompanies his endless chatter with a variety of handmade sound effects and acts as a Greek chorus filling the viewer in on what’s happening. This comedy act was as lame as the sentimental Randy Newman musical score. Chris Cooper stuffed wads of paper under his lower lip and the shy ‘frontier cowboy’ talked in a slow but arresting way, as he at least had a fighting chance to draw out his taciturn character from the superficial treatment the film gave to all its characters. Cooper gives the film’s best performance. I guess those who will like this film can make an argument that it does seem like a 1930s period film but with updated techie improvements. But despite its overall competency, I still couldn’t get excited about what I was seeing. When I saw in person great thoroughbreds such as Kelso and Secretariat, an inexplicable chill ran through me just watching them enter the racetrack. The horses themselves as well as the punters knew they were special. I got no such thrill from this pic. In Gary Ross’s Seabiscuit, the filmmaker thinks he caught that something special that inspires awe, but he runs with that alone without a telling narrative to ride that horse home. The film’s most lasting impression is in how well ex-jockey Chris McCarron, just retired in June of 2002, acted as the race designer making all the racing shots seem authentic. That might be good enough for a large percentage of the public but given how great the book was and how well it was received, this film is mildly disappointing despite being surprisingly faithful to the 400+ paged book.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”