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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 (lanmine66@yahoo.com)


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 it.

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.




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Seabiscuit
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