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, SEABISCUIT is
that rare thing: an intelligent motion picture. Unfortunately, just like another
year's alternative offering, THE ROAD TO PERDITION, SEABISCUIT falls short
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 TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS
DREAM, 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 SEABISCUIT
falls just short of being something great. Unlike the real-life horse, the movie
doesn't quite lead the pack at the finish line.
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.