An update was made to this review on July 15, 2003.
Fastidiously attentive to the particulars of its fabulous story, historical detail and 1930s period feel, “Seabiscuit” is respectable when it should be thrilling, honorable when it should be rough and ready. The story of one of the greatest American racehorses and the three unusual men who took him to the pinnacle was made famous all over again in Laura Hillenbrand’s sensationally good 2001 bestseller, and the book’s big following, combined with the presence of star Tobey Maguire, should create strong public interest in this rare nonsequel/cartoon/kiddie summer release from a major studio.
Unlike the previous cinematic account of the horse’s career, the 1949 “The Story of Seabiscuit,” which was so lamentably ahistorical that the thoroughbred’s main jockey, Red Pollard (Maguire’s character), didn’t even figure in it, writer-director Gary Ross’ treatment hews as scrupulously to the record as may have been possible in a mainstream feature of reasonable length. Such accuracy is not only commendable but perhaps, in this case, even mandatory, in that Hillenbrand put the facts of this astonishing tale so freshly in the public’s mind that viewers might not have tolerated much deviation.
But this fidelity also has its price, which in this case takes the form of a choppy and slow-to-involve first act that provides the backstory of the three men who made possible Seabiscuit’s makeover from an ungainly also-ran into a horse who, in 1938, generated more column inches of copy in the American press than either FDR or Adolf Hitler. Title character doesn’t make his grand entrance until 45 minutes in.
Ambitiously, Ross tries to accomplish everything the book did: Tell the story of an amazing racehorse, draw three indelible character portraits and create a vivid picture of a very difficult decade — each of which was hobbled at the beginning and resurrected, more or less, by the end. And while there is much to enjoy and appreciate in the film, Ross winds up looking at the Seabiscuit phenomenon through the wrong end of the telescope. Observing the tale from the long view of history, and saddling it with ennobling narration about the Depression from historian David McCullough and a far too inspirational/sentimental score by Randy Newman, gives the picture a somewhat embalmed quality that drains a gripping yarn of immediacy and excitement.
Formatted much like the book, but necessarily sketching rather than detailing, the immaculate-looking picture intercuts telling moments in the lives of the three men whose lives would intersect so decisively: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a San Francisco bicycle repairman-turned-automobile magnate whose life was shattered by the accidental death of his young son, and who would eventually buy Seabiscuit; Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a taciturn wrangler and “horse whisperer” whose solitary ways made him an unlikely candidate for the limelight as the horse’s trainer; and Pollard (an excellent Michael Angarano as a youngster, Maguire later on), a game, classics-spouting farm boy who at 16 was abandoned by his parents and for years thereafter knocked around the lower realms of the equestrian world.
The film devotes an unusual amount of time to character-building over narrative progress, even as it slights the book’s fascinating insights into jockeys’ hardscrabble lives. Dramatic kick-start also is postponed by frequent cutaways to Depression-era photos, over which McCullough intones significant facts and figures in all-too-perfect PBS style.
When Smith, speaking of a horse another trainer wants to put down, says, “You don’t throw a whole life away just because he’s banged up a little,” the metaphoric stress is such that it’s clear he’s also referring to himself, Charles Howard, Red Pollard, the country and a certain steed he hasn’t yet encountered.
Mishandled and unappreciated in his early racing life, Seabiscuit was all but washed up when he caught the eye of Smith and Howard. Undersized, with knobby legs and an ungraceful gait, the horse looked like a commoner among racing’s royalty, which ultimately became the source of his mass appeal. He was the little man, the long shot, the underdog.
During the Depression, this quality possessed a special charge, and Ross explicitly links the horse’s first victory under the trio’s tutelage to the idea of personal and national rehabilitation.
During the course of a series of smashing victories, the West Coast-based Seabiscuit gathers an enormous reputation, to the point that Howard is able to pressure upper-crust East Coaster Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones) into agreeing to a match race against the latter’s brilliant War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner. The build-up to and account of this extraordinary Nov. 1, 1938, event was the heart-quickening, sweat-inducing highlight of Hillenbrand’s book. It also was marked by irony and tragedy, as Red Pollard suffered a crushing injury on another horse two weeks before the race and was replaced on Seabiscuit by his closest friend, the flashy George Woolf (jockey Gary Stevens, in a confident first acting gig).
Films of the actual match reveal not only a thrilling race but an exquisite start, in which the horses dispensed with a normal starting gate in favor of a walk-up to their date with destiny.
It’s in his handling of this key moment that Ross tips his hand regarding his priorities. Instead of showing what anyone wants and has a right to expect to see at this point — the race in its entirety of less than two minutes — the director cuts away to show ordinary people listening to the radio account, so as to emphasize the national interest in the showdown. Ross wants to convey the big picture rather than the human and equine struggle, and while he eventually does cut back to the race, the moment has been lost, the thrill sucked out by one edit. With this long-view approach, the event is shoved onto the horizon of history even as it takes place.
Shortly thereafter, in his second failed attempt to win the Santa Anita Handicap, Seabiscuit is injured and joins Pollard in undertaking the long road back. This last section, as both horse and jockey, against heavy odds, prepare for one last shot at the Southern California track’s hundred-grander, has its poignant and affecting moments, but by this time it has become clear the film is content to occupy the high ground rather than to generate tension and excitement, even during Seabiscuit’s extraordinary final race.
Despite the true-life fairy-tale nature of the story, which features twists and turns and ups and downs as good as any screenwriter could ever hope to invent, this was certainly a tough adaptation to crack if one aspired to tell the whole story. The impulse to include as much detail as possible was clearly irresistible, just as the difficulty of conveying all the necessary information about racing, horses and society was considerable. What ended up onscreen is always at least interesting, and sometimes more than that, but the polite, impeccably groomed style works against a sense of urgency.
The three principal characters are nicely drawn. Playing yet another early-century automobile man (after “Tucker”), Bridges cuts a warm, genial figure as Howard, a showman and seemingly a genuinely honorable man. With a thicket of red hair and considerably slimmed down after “Spider-Man,” Maguire is a convincing Pollard, in the saddle and in quiet scenes such as one in which the hospitalized jockey advises his replacement how to ride Seabiscuit. Character is given no personal life, however, as the character of his wife, whom he met while convalescing, has been eliminated.
Cooper is entirely credible as a man who has spent his life on the range and feels more comfortable around animals than people. Still, one can’t help but suspect some bets have been lost by making Smith a somewhat more accessible, less crusty character onscreen than he was on the page, where “Silent Tom’s” immense uncommunicativeness was the source of notable hilarity when he s
tonewalled the press.
As it is, pic’s one repository of humor is William H. Macy’s rat-a-tat, very ’30s-style turn as a track radio commentator. Elizabeth Banks contributes a radiant elegance and proper period feel as Howard’s second wife. Vet horseman Chris McCarron, who superbly handled the complicated job of designing the race sequences, appears onscreen as War Admiral’s jockey, Charley Kurtsinger.
Production has been conscientiously appointed in all departments, from Jeannine Oppewall’s rich production design and Judianna Makovsky’s vast array of costumes to the wonderful selection of racetracks, especially the beautiful art-deco creation Santa Anita, where much of the action is set and which still looks much as it did when it opened in 1934.
It all shimmers in John Schwartzman’s sumptuous widescreen lensing.