Seabiscuit makes a promising start out of the gate but fumbles in the final stretch. It’s the inspirational story of a written-off, Depression-era racehorse that makes a startling comeback.Writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) attributes Seabiscuit’s phenomenal popularity to unemployed and working-poor American empathy with the horse’s struggles. Unfortunately, he labours the point through sloganeering and hokey dialogue, and clumsy visual parallels between characters human and equine. In his favour, he has a sharp eye for old-fashioned sweeping images, and for faces, too. The characters and extras of Seabiscuit have something of that strange, hard, distant look of 1930s sepia photographs.
Also working to Ross’s advantage is the rich source material. Laura Hillenbrand’s factual novel offers a wealth of detail from which an adaptor can pick and choose. Ross uses it to fill in the varied backgrounds of Seabiscuit’s owner (Jeff Bridges), trainer (a nicely understated Chris Cooper) and jockey (Tobey Maguire). He even has time to include a woman in all this. Elizabeth Banks is eye-catching in a decorative role as Bridges’ wife. Her forbearance here should hopefully lead her to future, more rewarding parts.Ross captures the vital synergy of owner-trainer-jockey behind Seabiscuit’s success. Unfortunately, he’s too intent on moulding the horse’s real-life triumphs into a string of predictably rousing movie moments (abetted by Randy Newman’s clichéd musical score). He’s taken the edge off Hillenbrand’s tale. The texture is lost and the action becomes increasingly simplistic. The longer this film runs, the less truthful it feels.