Seabiscuit Presented by: Universal Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment. Written and Directed by: Gary Ross. Based on the Book by: Laura Hillenbrand. Film Review by: Todd Kornick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In 1938, a single horse race with only two competitors managed to capture
the hearts of a nation still recovering from the emotional tolls of
the Great Depression. The victory of underdog Seabiscuit was a vicarious
thrill for millions of Americans because they were underdogs themselves.
The racehorse endured a rough colthood and unimpressive early career
to emerge from the backwaters of the sport as a worthy challenger to
Triple Crown winner War Admiral. In what amounts to a sporting industry
that equates horses with finely-tuned machines, lame ones are put down
and losers enslaved to train the winners. Undersized, moody and prone
to overeating and long naps in the shade, Seabiscuit, despite an impressive
pedigree, was apparently not a contender. Seabiscuit tells how such
an animal was pulled from the ashes, dusted off, and allowed to thrive
on its own terms. Ross suggests that Seabiscuit had such a poor showing
early on because his handlers failed to nurture his winning spirit.
Until this was allowed to take place, by owners and handlers who recognized
where he’d been and what he needed to win, Seabiscuit was doomed
to the stable.
In broad, warm & fuzzy strokes Gary Ross’s film, based on
Laura Hillenbrand’s book, draws parallels between the redemption
of a failed racehorse and America’s return to dignity after years
of grim poverty. FDR made the latter possible with public works programs
that created new jobs and stimulated the economy. “Somebody finally
cared” solemnly intones a voiceover that sounds like an American
chorus looking back with bittersweet fondness at this period of national
pride-swallowing. What sounds like Tom Bodet from the old Motel 6 commercials
sets the historical stage and introduces the main characters more or
less concurrently. There are four players here if you count the horse,
so this requires some patience on the viewer’s part that is rewarded
with some decent character development.
The dreamy pace evokes the slow shock and awe of Depression era living,
expressed poignantly in the doomed expression of Red Pollard’s
father as he sits in the gutter of his new ramshackle neighborhood.
When his plucky teenage son explains that he won $2 riding horses the
man can’t believe it. In the next scene Red’s mother and
father tell him to go live with the local racetrack owner and his wife
where he’ll get a regular meal and maybe an opportunity. It’s
one of the most touching scenes in the film and the first tragic event
to confront the jockey. When he finally mounts Seabiscuit Pollard is
very jaded, and also half-blind and punch-drunk after a short-lived
career moonlighting as a prizefighter.
Seabiscuit’s owner, auto magnate Charles S. Howard is played
by Jeff Bridges with the same sort of jovial optimism he channeled
for Tucker: A Man and His Dream (1988). He remains undefeated by the
tragic death of his son and the collapse of his marriage, bouncing
back with a younger, prettier wife and a new passion for horseracing.
It is this buoyancy that drives the speeches which later define the
meaning of Seabiscuit for his audience in the film and in the theatre. “When
the little guy doesn’t know he’s the little guy he can
do great things” he explains to a press corps who is eager and
willing to consume the optimism represented here. They know what this
means for the country at large.
Seeing the horse’s potential as literally a gleam in its eye,
soft-spoken trainer Tom Smith, underplayed with patience and sympathy
by Chris Cooper, buys Seabiscuit for a pittance and indulges the animal’s
idiosyncrasies while he rebuilds its confidence. These sequences allude
to the most compelling aspect of this film: that a racehorse can possess
a self-image as complex as any human athlete, sensitive to its handling
and treatment, which essentially lets the horse know if it’s
a winner or a loser.
We find out that Seabiscuit’s previous trainers used him as
a sparring partner for more successful horses, forcing him to lose
and thus boost the self esteem of his opponent. Later, when Seabiscuit
starts to win races, Red’s failsafe strategy is to reign him
in just behind the leader, allowing Seabiscuit to dramatically take
the lead for the final stretch.
There is a complication going into the second act when Red suffers
a crippling leg injury before the match race, but it lacks bite because
these characters have already proven themselves. There is another noble
jockey to take Red’s place, George Woolf, (real-life jockey and
3-time Kentucky Derby winner Gary Stevens III) and the bold challenge
alone is enough to cement for Seabiscuit a permanent place in the history
books. Nevertheless, Seabiscuit wins and wins again until a ruptured
ligament puts him on the sidelines for what the vets say is permanent
retirement like Red. Predicatably not so; Seabiscuit and Red recuperate
together and win again. In the final shot, man and beast bear down
on the finish line in slow-motion while the camera slides past the
cheering crowd and back around to Red while the voiceover returns to
overstate that that the horse helped them all as much as they helped
This movie was built to please and not to challenge, a feel good movie
when so many movies seem made to make one feel bad, or at least conflicted.
It has a lazy Sunday feel to it and I’m glad I saw it on just
such a day. The story is simple and has a place in our nation’s
history. Likewise it has a solid cast and a solid moral, kernel that
I couldn’t crack: when a soul is not free to do what it was built
to do it has nothing to live for. There is an alternative movie trapped
inside Seabiscuit: about how Howard exploits Seabiscuit to rebuild
his empire. His young wife falls for Red and Red’s crippling
accident is all a vengeful arrangement by Howard. The filmmakers, however,
did not wish to be cynical or sexy, but rather chose to present a beleaguered
country with good, uncomplicated, even patriotic feelings.