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Seabiscuit (A Movie Review)


Starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Gary Stevens, Valerie Mahaffey, Ed Lauter, Michael O'Neill, Annie Corley, Sam Bottoms, Eddie Jones, Robin Bissell, Ken Magee, Gary Ross, Ben Campisi and voice of David McCullough.

Screenplay by Gary Ross.

Directed by Gary Ross.

Distributed by Universal Pictures. Rated PG-13. 141 minutes.

In this jaded age, it is sometimes hard to remember movies before they became either ironically detached, or cynically well-constructed tinker-toys. It is particularly hard to recall the days when a film would embrace such old-fashioned virtues as hard work, family and struggling to succeed. A film that is not be afraid to be a little corny sometimes, but just celebrates the strength and determination of the common man, the dogged pursuit of the American dream and the beauty of a relationship with a good animal. Seabiscuit is one of those films.

Now I have a tendency towards the cynical myself, so it was nice to see that I could still get swept up into the spectacle of this film. Seabiscuit is a beautiful film, full of sepia-toned nostalgia of rumble seats and dust bowl towns and some of the most wonderfully filmed horse racing scenes in film history. It even gives us some brief history lessons to give the viewer an appreciation of how the times affected the story about three bruised men who save an underestimated racehorse and help him become a champion.

The film spans over thirty years, from the industrial revolution of the 1910s, through the Great Depression and on into the recovery of pre-World War II America. Jeff Bridges plays Charles Howard, a repairman and born salesman who makes a small fortune by getting into the automobile business early. He becomes affluent enough to survive the Depression comfortably, though his business is hurt a bit, he still does well enough to keep his sprawling ranch house and prize racing cars. He doesn't survive the period completely unscathed though, his young son's death in a car crash leads to his divorce and his loss of enthusiasm for the machine that was responsible for his wealth.

Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) did not make it through the depression as well off. The son of a middle-class family that spoiled him and taught him a love of literature and horses, he sees his family fall apart when the stock market crash destroys his father's means. Knowing he can't support his 16-year-old son, Red's father insists Red move in with the owner of a track, where he could have shelter, food, and work. Within a few years, despite the fact that he was too tall and blind in one eye, he worked as a jockey for slave wages, and also supplemented his meager income by being a streetfighter.

Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) was a trainer who became disgusted by the racing world where a horse was not seen as a living being, but as a commodity. He eventually becomes an old eccentric who hangs around the track, trying to mend a horse gone lame.

The final piece in the puzzle was Seabiscuit. From a good bloodline (His grandfather was champion horse Man O'War), the horse was too small and too gentle and eventually mistreated by trainers who had given up on him. But even though the abuse has turned the horse mean, Smith sees the heart in him, so when a remarried Howard asks him to help find a racehorse, the old trainer suggests Seabiscuit. After trying other jockeys who did not understand the animal, he sees a similar untamed spirit in the struggling Pollard.

We watch as the four bruised beings come to trust each other and learn from each other. This leads to an unlikely symmetry; the three men together are able to learn how to get the horse to live up to his potential. They rise in the racing ranks to the pinnacle, when separate accidents cause the horse and the jockey to injure their legs to a point where doctors say neither will ever race again. You can undoubtedly guess whether they listen to the doctors. By then, Seabiscuit has us in its thrall. After the lengthy recuperation period, the final race is truly thrilling.

In a world where we have questionable weapons of mass destruction, orange alerts and government recalls, it's nice to find a film that remembers simple family values but does not pander to us with them. Seabiscuit is proof that you can be pure and old-fashioned, and still be intelligent and inspiring. (7/03)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. Posted: July 25, 2003.

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