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Seabiscuit

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 07/25/03 15:08:34

"Finishes Out Of The Money"
3 stars (Average)

Some stories need to be told in all facets and forms. Fiction has taken so many liberties with stories that it often blurs the line when a true story is even too amazing to believe. Compelling stories from Apollo 13 to Titanic catapult from the screen while smaller scale tales make their way into the land of movie-of-the-week. That is, until a book can capture the heart of America; an underdog tale that is as much a story about its author as its subject matter. Many of us weren't around when the racehorse Seabiscuit made its rise into legend territory, but have witnessed our own heroes in the sports world and their legend grow with each weaving of the circumstances surrounding them. Sometimes the actual event can't live up to their status in our own imagination; not even when it's played out right before our very eyes.

Laura Hillenbrand's book took a wise approach to branching out the underdog status to the three men in Seabiscuit's life. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was a down-on-his-luck bicycle salesman who rose to tycoon status in the Buick industry before tragedy tore apart his family. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) was the last of a dying breed of cowboys who saw cars replace horses in the stables. Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was a young man whose parents left him to pursue his gift of jockeying when the Depression became too much for them to handle.

Writer/director Gary Ross lays down their history in a thorough prologue (lasting 45 minutes) against the backdrop of both prosperity and desperation in America. The turn of the century brought a new tide, dreamers were everywhere and the stock market was there to take it all back. Ross uses PBS narrator David McCullough (The American Experience) to take us through the ups and downs to the point where we wonder if an audiobook would have served us the same purpose.

These three men will eventually come together thanks to the horse named Seabiscuit, a small, banged-up little guy once used to give other horses confidence on the track. With a little training and the right amount of care, this "nag", as referred to by racing announcer Tick Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy, in a terrific scene-stealing performance), is ready to show everyone what he's got.

Unfortunately, it comes through a series of checklist events that barely seem fleshed-out even at a running time of 140 minutes. Ross showed a perfect knack for storytelling with his 1998 directorial debut, Pleasantville. Compare how many plot threads there are in that film (and how much more is understated) to Seabiscuit, where most of the scenes are too short to create any sort of indelible emotional impact.

Smith is presented as perhaps the original "horse whisperer" yet there is little to no alone time between him and Seabiscuit. There's a natural parallel between Howard, who lost a son, and Pollard, who lost his parents, but Ross never crosses the finish line on their relationship. The screenplay walks the line between avoiding all the usual clichés (despite their historical relevance & dramatic intrigue) and shooting them right out of the cannon about second chances, underdogs and dialogue like "It's better to break a man's leg than his heart." Ham-fisted metaphors pop up more than once and two more subplots arise before one can get resolved. Pollard's visual impairment is hinted at in an early scene and then forgotten about by the time he wins six races on Seabiscuit. Then when it's discovered by his partners ("he lied to us!" Um, when?); it's brushed off as a minor point in the name of second chances.

Something is vaguely saddening at how the true impetus for why America knows these men -- the title character -- is given such short strift on his own persona. As stories about animals go, a horse may never be able to compete with a dog or a piece of animation, unless he's talking, despite being one of the most majestic of all creatures. Since there is no voice or personality, in comes the narrator to give us Seabiscuit's past. Ironic also that for all the weight that Smith puts on not exploiting the animal for publicity purposes (in another brief scene), isn't there an unwielded hypocrisy that these three men are using this horse for their financial (and implied spiritual) gain? After all, as Smith says, "he's a racehorse." Is it also a good idea to show such a horse lover chasing down and roping a horse only to cut immediately to him alone sitting by a fire with something cooking on the spit?

Not even the cast gets the chance to cross over into that potential for Oscar seers to sit up and take notice, although they are unilaterally fine. Maguire never gets as emotional a scene as the actor who plays the younger version of himself. Cooper is introduced with the potential of having another great supporting role as the older, monosyllabic trainer (and is, admittedly, a standout) but is always playing second banana to historic footnotes. And the always reliable Jeff Bridges, and I can't believe I'm saying this, is actually digging back into his archives to play a character that can best be described as "the man and his dream." (This is the second time I've said this about Bridges this year; his Sundance entry Masked & Anonymous shows traces of "The Dude".) Elizabeth Banks may have have the biggest fourth-billed nothing role in history as Howard's second wife who is always on hand to look pretty and ask an occasional question for one of the three men to answer. The film ends on such an unorthodox note that despite the appearance of a finish line, closure for any of these characters is given up once again to a voiceover.

Underdog story, true-and-true, this is as terrific a tale as they come. From down-and-out status to the famed West vs. East coast rivalry with War Admiral, to rising up once again. Recanting such stories, though, is usually best handled with a certain degree of schmaltz. After all, that's what audiences want, right? To feel good and to identify their own personal struggles, if only in just one of the four browbeaten souls? It would have served Ross best to just lose the intrusive narration trying to turn this into a Ken Burns saga, since the idea of Seabiscuit becoming the "people's champion" and bringing hope to the masses never goes further than seeing crowds of people cheer. But I've seen THAT at Arlington Park hundreds of times.

With a cast, a filmmaker and a story as inspirational as this, Seabiscuit should have either flown out of the gate or come charging late in the stretch, rather than constantly waiting to make its move in the middle of the pack. I hate not being able to like this movie and I wouldn't tell people not to see it, but the year's first true Oscar contender it doesn't deserve to be. The racing sequences are quite thrilling, but not one compares to seeing a truly great stretch run played out without cuts. Sometimes when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Don't film it.

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