Americans have always loved the underdog. Something in the psyche of
  the nation roots for the success of the one least likely to achieve it. (Never
  mind that in most cases that success then leads the populous to turn on that
  individual once he has reached the pinnacle; Americans love to tear down that
  which they build up).

          Back in the 1930s, while the country was mired in the Great Depression,
  it took a smallish racehorse to rally the spirits of the downtrodden. As detailed
  in Laura Hillenbrand's excellent nonfiction book
Seabiscuit: An American Legend,
  the story of equine achievement was also the tale of three men who collaborated
  and contributed to that success. In turning the book into a film, writer-director
  Gary Ross has made a pleasurable movie. Arriving as it does in the doldrums
  of a summer filled with special-effects driven action movies,
  that rare thing: an intelligent motion picture. Unfortunately, just like another
  year's alternative offering,
  of achieving its ultimate goals.

          The film opens with a series of images from the early 20th Century and
  utilizes an omniscient narrator voiced by PBS staple David McCullough. As soon
  as McCullough's familiar tones are heard, the audience may be excused if it
  expects to see a Ken Burns documentary. Ross spends a good hour of the film
  establishing the three principals. Jeff Bridges portrays millionaire car salesman
  Charles Howard, who for the bargain basement price of $2000 acquired the
  titular racer. Oscar winner Chris Cooper plays Tom Smith, the taciturn horse
  trainer and Tobey Maguire rounds out the trio as jockey John "Red" Pollard.

          Howard and Pollard have intriguing back stories that are deftly played
  out on screen. The former was an Easterner who went west and eventually
  made his fortune but paid the terrible price of losing his son in an automobile
  accident. The latter was a Canadian whose parents more or less abandoned
  him so he could pursue his "gift" with horses. Thus, the father seeks a
  substitute child and the lost child seeks a substitute parent, providing a neat
  dramatic structure to the tale. Apparently little is known about Smith (or his
  history was terribly devoid of drama) as his scenes mostly consist of him in
  solitude or communing with horses or traveling the freights with other men.

          Once the three have joined forces and the scrappy horse has been added
  to the mix, things kick in and the film settles into an enjoyable, if predictable
  tale of redemption, loss and resurrection. The cinematography of John
  Schwartzman is excellent and captures the feel of being right in the race.
  Randy Newman's score, however, is treacly and derivative and mars many
  of the scenes.

          Ross directs well and he has selected an impeccable cast. Having already
  essayed the rise and fall of one car magnate in
, Bridges get to offer a riff on the part. And like any great musician,
  this actor does yeoman work. Cooper nicely embodies the cowboy ethic, while
  Maguire commands the screen with his charisma. Each is given ample
  opportunities to shine, but the film is nearly purloined by William H. Macy
  as the composite character of a radio sports announcer whose rapid-fire
  delivery and shtick provide some comic relief. And jockey Gary Stevens lend
  authenticity to his turn as jockey George Woolf. Valerie Mahaffey registers
  as the first Mrs. Howard while Elizabeth Banks has little do as the second
  Mrs. Howard except look lovely in the period clothing of Judianna Markovsky.

          Clearly the film has a pedigree worthy of its titular figure, but
  falls just short of being  something great. Unlike the real-life horse, the movie
  doesn't quite lead the pack at the finish line.

Rating:               B
                                 MPAA Rating:      PG-13 for some sexual situations and
                                                                  violent sports-related images                 
Running time:     140 minutes

                                Viewed at Loews Lincoln Square
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.