What Hollywood Does Best
I admit Seabiscuit is Oscar-bait. Nothing wows the Academy like a good ol' triumph-of-the-human-spirit story. Start with a put-upon underdog, give him a fighting chance, and let the audience root him to victory. Pad this with great acting, beautiful photography, and a score that knows when to hit its cues, and you've got yourself a winner.
And, when it's done right, it's wonderful. Seabiscuit is done right. Sure, the cynic inside me was keeping tabs on all the obvious and predictable moments, but the part of me that just wanted to relax and enjoy a good movie was winning out, allowing me to be swayed and moved. The movie cast an old spell, tried-and-true, and I happily soaked in the enchantment.
This is the kind of movie Hollywood was made for. Forget the action blockbusters, the comedies, the thrillers -- they get bungled up more often than not because Hollywood always tries to second guess the audience, hoping what they've created appeals to current tastes. However, Tinseltown reigns supreme when using the triumph-of-the-human-spirit formula. These tales don't go out of style, and the filmmakers who know how to make them work don't grasp at theories of what the audience wants -- they dictate what the audience wants. Hollywood can put together one of these crowd-pleasers the way a master chef can supply a banquet -- with confidence that what is served will be warmly received.
But this makes Seabiscuit sound like a been-there-done-that kind of deal, and that wouldn't be fair. Unlike most triumph stories, this one features the journey of not one but four protagonists: rich salesman Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), and the horse itself, Seabiscuit. The movie takes the time to show each of them as imperfect individuals, living through tough times, before finding each other to form a team that would not only inspire themselves but the community around them as well. Its message is one of mutual support, not singular personal victory -- we can get through challenges when we have something to get behind, and when we get behind one another.
The adversary in the movie isn't an unreasonable human being, the system, a corporation, or any other kind of identifiable entity. Life presents enough of the challenges, from the Depression to personal tragedies. Nothing makes up for the losses the characters endure, but their involvement with the career of Seabiscuit helps them all heal. The pulse of life and its unpredictable, inevitable incidents are presented well in the film -- many of the events that happen aren't dwelled upon but are instead touched on in quick beats: a death, a funeral, abandonment, job loss, a wedding. Dwelling isn't necessary because we know what these events are all about -- gathering these beats gives us a better perspective, a sense of totality, and this is the foundation upon which the inspiration that Seabiscuit brings can arise.
Seabiscuit also deserves credit for its well-staged horse-racing scenes. I'd say it contains better action than a lot of what passes for action in this summer's movies. Cars crashing and buildings exploding don't hold a candle to the sheer exhiliration of watching the horses run on the track, gaining on the lead with sudden bursts of speed. The races are expertly set up and shot, often with the feel of being in the midst of the action. Most impressive was the pacing of the races -- these relatively short contests contained drama in each of their phases, from the opening bell to the home stretch, and, in each moment, the filmmakers were able to film the horses doing exactly what they should. You could see a horse pacing itself, you could see it kick into high gear, and you can feel yourself leaning forward in anticipation.
I can think of people this film may not appeal to, but for those of us it does work for, it works very well. We like the feeling of emotions swelling within us, and the smile we get when the underdog pulls through, and the drama of a close contest. And, personally, I enjoy being surrounded by an audience that shares this enthusiasm. We know what we're getting into. We know all the cues. Late in the movie, when we feel a tragic moment coming up, we expect it -- I could hear the fellow behind me whispering to his friend, "oh there's going to be an accident." But it's all part of the experience. Like when the lady a few rows behind me started yelling aloud, "Yes! Go! Go!" during the centerpiece race -- no one complained, because we were all thinking it. We were having a great time at the movies.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some sexual elements and violent sports-related images.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.