Seabiscuit
review by Gregory Avery, 25 July 2003

In Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, Chris Cooper gives a magnificent performance as Tom Smith, an upstanding man of few words who has an unassuming nobility and is capable of great depths of feeling. A horse trainer, he is able to take the measure of an animal, assess its weaknesses as well as its strengths, and then with a soothing tone and gentle hand proceed to bring the latter to the fore. He spots a wild-spirited brown horse that is about to be put-down, and rescues it, which then catches the attention of Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who, with a pugnacious jockey named Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), turn the horse into the race champion Seabiscuit, who would become a household name.

Gary Ross' film, which he directed and wrote the screenplay adaptation for, is enjoyable -- in part because, good heavens, it seems genuinely interested in people and in telling a story about them -- but it has some gaps. It does a good job in the opening sections in showing the events, public and personal, that shaped its three main characters up to the moment when they meet -- Howard's rise from a bicycle salesman in San Francisco (wrong city for bicycles) to successful salesman pitching the "future" of the automobile, as well as the unexpected dissolution of his family; Pollard's scramble to make a living as both an amateur jockey as well as an amateur boxer (which leads to his losing sight in one eye, something he tries to keep secret as much as possible); Smith encountering barbed wire strung across open land, touching it with his thumb while assessing its ramifications -- as well as the way Seabiscuit himself had been handled (courtesy of David McCullough, who spoke the narration for some of Ken Burns' documentaries) in ways that would provide hurdles the three men will have to overcome.

But the film doesn't give us a really good idea of how Seabiscuit captured and fired the public imagination and interest the way he did -- the horse, as with the three men who together turned him into a champion, is supposed to represent the achievement of the underdog, at a time during the 1930s when many good people fell on very hard times through no fault of their own. Also, the film gives us little in terms of what brought and kept the three men who rescued and trained (as well as promoted) Seabiscuit together -- they are supposed to bring out the best in each other, as well, but the men must have had something more that kept them together than confluence and the recognition to win. (One gets the feeling, for instance, that Cooper's Tom Smith, unmaterialistic and so attuned to the broader nature of things, would have found some way to get along had he never met Howard and Pollard -- he might have had just as good a life had he never turned Seabiscuit into a famous race horse.)

The film depicts Seabiscuit as a small horse jockeyed by a big rider, a combination that shouldn't work but does because horse and rider know how to work together. I suspect this may be to explain the fact that Tobey Maguire, without faulting his performance (which is just fine), is bigger and dissimilar to the actual Red Pollard, who was more willowy, light complected, and sometimes dieted to the point of anorexia. The film concludes with Seabiscuit's wins at Pimlico and, in 1940 (the year before the U.S. entry into World War Two), at Santa Anita -- it ends on a high note, with no further disclosures of what happens to horse or men, but with Maguire's Pollard saying that "he, meaning Seabiscuit, "fixed us, meaning the shambling guys they were before they met and worked together. I find this to be a little too self-depreciating: if anything, the men fixed themselves, plus Seabiscuit. I rather like better the melancholy, settled note upon which Hillenbrand ends her story, with Seabiscuit's bones resting peacefully and in privacy under an oak tree.

Written and 
Directed by:

Gary Ross

Starring:
Tobey Maguire
Jeff Bridges
Chris Cooper
Elizabeth Banks
Ed Lauter
Gary Stevens
William H. Macy

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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