Winner by a Long Haul
"It's about more than a racehorse," are repeated comments from viewers who saw an early peek at Seabiscuit. They're absolutely right. Thanks to writer/director Gary Ross's vision and a wonderful cast, the movie finds common ground on more than a racetrack. Seabiscuit explores human nature, the will to survive and the determination to follow your dream.
The movie is based on the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. She skillfully layers the story about an afflicted horse around the lives of three men who have also lost hope.
Tobey Maguire plays John "Red" Pollard. I was immediately drawn to the young lad who grows up in an affluent home, only to be cast into the work force during the Great Depression, estranged from his family. Red works on one horse farm after another and because he's mad at the world, often gets into scrapes. But he never forgets the world his father opened up to him, reading, and that becomes the saving grace that gives him humility in rough times and a patience to see the good in others.
Jeff Bridges portrays Charles Howard, an entrepreneur who buys a Buick dealership. What is seen as risky venture at the beginning of the 20th Century, quickly becomes a pot of gold. Deciding he wants to own a racehorse, Charles hires Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a trainer who sees an unusual spark in a feisty horse named Seabiscuit. He also sees the same wounded spirit in jockey Red Pollard and soon all three men are working for the same goal -- to make Seabiscuit a winner.
When both Red and Seabiscuit experience severe injuries, their racing careers seemed doomed. But Tom's motto, "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little," becomes the driving force that catapults these three men into achieving amazing accomplishments.
Putting this immense story on film was a task well done by the filmmakers. Ross's collaboration with Hillenbrand to ensure the story about each man's loss was paramount; and his choice of producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall and cinematographer John Schwartzman (Pearl Harbor, The Rock), pushed the film into the winner's circle. Schwartzman's unique talents behind the lens enabled him to light the scenes in a way that captured the intense action of important sequences.
The history of the Great Depression and its impact on the lives of millions is astutely threaded into Seabiscuit through a narrative by historian David McCullough. Accompanied by documentary images, this technique clearly sets up the feel for the era.
Three terrific actors bring the story to life. Maguire displays a broad range of talent in his performances. From the young man who found a kindred spirit to young orphans in The Cider House Rules to the bigger-than-life role in Spiderman, he aces each character. As Red, Maguire taps into a smoldering rage transitioning into his lifeline out of recession. "All three of the characters isolate themselves … for various reasons," said Maguire. "Seabiscuit is the unlikely charm that brings the three of us together."
Bridges is the fatherly patriarch over this mix of wounded souls, and the four-time Academy Award nominee excels in this key role. He's reserved yet persevering, tormented yet searching for the road to recovery -- and enterprising enough to find it.
Chris Cooper, one of those chameleon-type actors, has played such varied roles that many people still can't identify him. His Oscar this year for best supporting actor in Adaptation substantiates his abilities. As Tom Smith, Cooper once again offers a terrific performance as a man lost in a changing world, an observer who often finds the jewels among the cast outs.
Eliciting outrageous laughs all through the movie is the wonderfully talented William Macy as Tick-Tock McGlaughlin, a radio announcer covering the racetrack. Seabiscuit raced during the 1930s, a time when the nation was reeling from the great depression, and millions of Americans turned to the radio for escapism. Tick-Tock brought them a fun new world. Ross's brilliant dialogue captures the humor of Tick-Tock's rapid-fire play on words, and Macy's comedic ability nails the character's boozing personality.
Alas, this incredible story could not have come to light without horses and filmmakers going the extra mile to ensure realism, which included everything from hiring real-life jockeys such as renowned rider Gary Stevens to securing 50 top horses from around the country. Of course, there was only one Seabiscuit in history, and no one replacement could fill that role. Therefore, Seabiscuit is played by several horses in the movie.
No doubt about it, Seabiscuit belongs in the winner's circle.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some sexual situations and violent sports-related images.)