Seabiscuit

2003, Movie, PG-13, 129 mins

Review

SEABISCUIT
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Based on Laura Hillenbrand's nonfiction bestseller, this solidly old-fashioned film tells the story of an unprepossessing horse that rose to the highest ranks of thoroughbred racing and enchanted Depression-era America but never quite achieves the significance to which it so desperately aspires. Seabiscuit's saga is also the tale of three men: Self-made automotive millionaire Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who once declared he "wouldn't give $5 for the best horse in America," bought the underachieving three-year-old. Horse whisperer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), an old-time man of the West who lived long enough to see the frontier built up, fenced in and paved over, undid a lifetime of mishandling. And world-class horseman Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who was blind in one eye and beset by personal problems, formed a winning bond with his temperamental mount. Seabiscuit gives them all a new lease on life, starting with Howard. Devastated by his son's death, he takes up riding at the urging of his vivacious second wife (Elizabeth Banks) and decides to buy a racehorse. Howard chooses the eccentric, taciturn Smith as his trainer because his gut tells him Smith has a rare way with horses. Smith's gut tells him that the unlovely and underachieving Seabiscuit, a knock-kneed, scrub-tailed, undersized, bad-tempered beast, could be a champion, and that the young man too tall and too troubled for professional racing has the mettle to ride him to victory. That the fabulously wealthy Howard excelled at delivering brilliantly spun, populist sound bites helped sell the image of the scrappy little horse that could. The small print — that his underdog was the grandson of Man O' War, not some nag — hardly mattered. And "the Biscuit" did the grunt work, setting records and acing a match-race too shamelessly dramatic for fiction: Seabiscuit wiped up the track with Triple Crown-winner War Admiral, a paragon of horseflesh blessed with superior size, exemplary breeding and movie-star good looks. Director-screenwriter Gary Ross simplifies, streamlines and soft peddles the complexities of the Seabiscuit saga, saddling it with syrupy voice-over narration by historian David McCullough and a painfully sentimental score. Such missteps might have might have sunk a less inherently gripping story, but Seabiscuit's tale is real-life inspirational drama at its purest: It would take a hard heart to root against the equine underdog and the bootstrapping ideals he embodied. The movie's secret weapons are its stellar cast, whose performances go a long way to ameliorating Ross's ham-fisted use of foreshadowing and symbols, and its brilliantly shot racing sequences — they're heart-stoppingly suspenseful even when the outcome is a matter of record. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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