Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:21 - Released 7/25/03

Seabiscuit is one of those real-life dramas that seems to be tailor-made for the silver screen. The events depicted in this film were so incredible, and happened at such a perfect time, that it would be hard to believe if it were not true. Written and directed by Gary Ross (adapted from the book by Laura Hillenbrand), Seabiscuit recounts the story of a true long shot—a racehorse so small and rough that he was disregarded by most experts at the time, but whose uncanny drive, coupled with his jockey’s unorthodox style, helped lift the spirits of a nation in the midst of a crippling depression, and led to one of the most widely followed sporting events of all time.

The fact that Seabiscuit is narrated by distinguished historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough (whose voice became unmistakably familiar when he narrated Ken Burns’s famous 1990 PBS documentary The Civil War) lends the film a sense of authenticity from the start, and the well-researched period settings, production values, and performances of its cast add to that effect. Inhabiting the leading roles are Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, the car salesman whose wife leaves him following the death of their only son, Chris Cooper as Tom Smith, the eccentric trainer whose style predates The Horse Whisperer, and Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard, the overweight, down-on-his-luck jockey whose losing reputation was exacerbated by his tendency to pick fights.

Into the lives of these three men comes Seabiscuit, whose genealogical descent from legendary racehorse Man O’ War (his grandfather) does not at first seem to bless him with any extraordinary talent. Dismissed as too small and without ambition, the horse is bought by Howard, who had previously said—referring to the advent of automobiles—that he wouldn’t pay $5 for the best horse in the country. Howard soon meets Tom Smith, a loner who sleeps outside and is ostracized by the other trainers, but has developed a knack for dealing with “untrainable” horses since he used to tame wild mustangs out West. When Tom looks Seabiscuit in the eye, he sees something special: As McCullough narrates, “Smith would say later that the horse looked right through him, as if to say, ‘What the hell are you looking at?’” He begins gently leading the horse to his inevitable fate by talking softly to him, walking him around the track, and learning the quirks and peculiarities of his personality. But when the two men (and more importantly, the horse) meet Red Pollard, it becomes clear that there is a chemistry which will make them a formidable team.

What starts out as a tentative testing-of-the-water period soon leads to win after win for Seabiscuit in his local area of Santa Anita, California. As reported by horserace commentator and well-liked radio personality “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin (William H. Macy), Seabiscuit soon becomes a horse to be reckoned with and a household name, especially since Pollard’s style includes slowing down in the middle of the race and letting other horses catch up, only to pour on the steam toward the end. This unlikely system garners Seabiscuit not only national fame as America’s favorite underdog, but an inevitable meeting with the current champion, War Admiral. But just before the match race between the country’s two most famous steeds is to take place, Red suffers an accident (while riding another horse) in which his leg is broken in several places. As the date of the race draws near, he must arrange for a substitute—his friend and fellow jockey George Woolf (played by real-life jockey Gary Stevens, himself a multiple Triple-Crown race winner and, fittingly, the 1996 winner of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award). Although War Admiral’s owner, Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones) pooh-poohs Seabiscuit’s chances against his champion, the national anticipation rises to a fever pitch as the race date nears.

Although it is as predictable as any underdog sports movie (especially if the viewer knows how the actual 1938 race came out), Seabiscuit is endowed with a heart one doesn’t always see in films about baseball or football, or even Italian prize fighters who slurringly scream for their girlfriends after the fight. Of course, the fact that it really happened is a major factor in this equation, but the combination of talented actors, the dusty, depressed period setting, the beautiful cinema of John Schwartzman, and (one mustn’t forget) the performances of the 10 horses who share the title role, all come together to make this an especially enjoyable film for all who love horses, for all who love long shot stories, and for all who love good cinema in general. If you’re tired of high-tech computer wizardry, ponderous epics set in faraway lands, or bullets whizzing around your head, you might do well to saddle up and give Seabiscuit a trial run. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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