"Awesome," enthused one twenty-something as she exited the screening of Seabiscuit. "Sappy," complained a more seasoned thirty-something movie buff.
In case anyone hasn’t already learned from the massive barrage of publicity and advertising, Seabiscuit, based on a best-selling nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, is the story of a racehorse on whom everyone had given up but Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a down-but-not-out trainer. Bought by a wealthy, self-made San Francisco auto dealer, Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who’s lost his young son in an accident, and ridden by scrappy, too-big-for the-job, abandoned-by-his-family jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire with a dye job), Seabiscuit gets charged up for a comeback–although it must be pointed out that he never had been there in the first place.
It’sa classic setup–three men, all of whom have suffered major reverses, and an under-sized but big-in-spirit horse come together and show the world that even the downtrodden can win. Played against the background of Great Depression soup kitchens and Rooseveltian largesse, Seabiscuit’s successes, combined with savvy populist PR by Howard, attract public adulation, providing both inspiration and needed escape from the cares of the day. Throw in lines like the one Smith says about Seabiscuit, "You don’t throw a whole life away just ’cause it’s banged up a little," and the entire audience nearly breaks into a whinny in identification with the horse.
To provide a bit of conflict, Howard challenges Samuel Riddle, the owner of Triple Crown winner, War Admiral, to a face off between their two horses. Riddle refuses until Howard’s publicity campaign leaves him little choice; even then, he calls all the terms to be most favorable to his pampered horse. Classic setup number two: the little horse from nowhere to be ridden by a one-eyed jockey–upstarts from the West challenging the aristocratic thoroughbred from the fat-cat, smug, establishment East. Wanna lay odds on who wins?
Seabiscuit is a handsomely mounted movie, with fine cinematography and editing telling its story gracefully. The racing scenes are expertly executed and there are fewer laggy parts than might be expected in the film’s lengthy two and a quarter hours. The Depression background is sketched in with enough information to make the point, but stopping short of (as a disappointed viewer disparagingly called it) a Ken Burns documentary. (The narrator here, David McCullough, also narrated Burns’ The Civil War.) A digression into a Tia Juana bordello with Maguire comes off as utterly gratuitous, but mostly the film stays focused.
The problem is with the characterizations. The screenplay by writer/director Gary Ross ever so carefully establishes motivation for the three central characters, but he never succeeds in making those characters live. Motivation alone isn’t enough and these roles are otherwise so under-imagined and two-dimensional that with lesser performances they would have faded into a pale shade of bland. Ross also repeats the weakness of his earlier Pleasantville, announcing his points repeatedly, unwilling to trust his audience to get it, spoonfeeding his themes so insistently that the spoon could make a strong man gag. Add to that the generic, manipulative and thoroughly cliched score by Randy Newman, with all the expected swelling strings, and what might have been a great movie becomes pabulum for the mass market.
If there is a saving grace, it is the comic relief provided by the ever-more-wondrous William H. Macy (Door to Door, Focus), perhaps the finest character actor in Hollywood today. Macy plays the only unconventional, quirky character in the entire film, a high-energy horsetrack radio announcer given to colorful language and gimmicky sound effects. Every time he appears on screen, and only when he appears on screen, Seabiscuit comes genuinely and delightfully alive. – Arthur Lazere