All genre movies of confrontation -- auto racing, baseball, combat, you name it -- face two audiences. One is naturally the standard movie-going audience who asks to be entertained; the other is the "true believer," who demands fidelity to higher aims. You may have been well satisfied with the gripping scenes of The Hustler or Marathon Man; check further with pool sharks and oral surgeons.
So does Seabiscuit face dual verdicts. Can today's standard audience, wet-nursed by special effects of the slam-bam Matrix mode, be entertained by the story of a horse who hasn't run in 60 years? And then can the knowers and lovers of the thoroughbred race horse survive yet another Hollywood attack?
Guild and guilty, your honor. But with extenuating circumstances ... .
Director Gary Ross wrote the Seabiscuit screenplay based on Laura Hillenbrand's surprise best-seller, and he strives stoutly to shoe-horn a whole mess of stories into a two-hour movie. First off, there's horse owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), self-made automobile magnate whose optimism and marriage are shattered by the motoring death of his young son. Then there's Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), horse-whisperer/hobo-turned-trainer, who never met a horse he didn't like or a man he did. Sleeping in the weeds. Finally, there's Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), achingly thrown into Depression waters by impoverished parents with only a sack of classic books for buoyancy.
Of course, they are life's walking wounded and their gathering into a mutually redemptive cluster crystallizes around ... Seabiscuit?
Yes, the story of Seabiscuit is the one story that gets underplayed in Seabiscuit. The horse doesn't even get any screen time until thirtysomething minutes have passed, and this omission doubtless caused some thoroughbred lovers a little squirming.
But the choice is deliberate by Ross; calculating that the average movie-goer would be better wooed by human problems than by equine ones, Ross emphasizes those early and often. Even the photographing of the horses who would stand in for Seabiscuit (there were 10) is often done fleetingly, tangentially, so that at the end of the movie you are unlikely to have much of an idea what Seabiscuit was supposed to look like. (He was doggedly ordinary, except for an arch expression that his trainer described as "like he was saying, 'Who the hell are you?'"
The movie's opening images are of a Henry Ford Model-T assembly line, which narrator David McCullough declares was "the beginning and the end of imagination all at the same time." The irony of Buick empire builder Charles Howard first losing his son to the motor-car and then saving his psyche with the animal that car replaced would be overdone irony if it were not too true.
The device of historian McCullough and his PBS-narrating voice as a way of familiarizing an unfamiliar audience with the backgrounds of the protagonists and the Depression works at first. But repeated usages and a too-close linking of the Seabiscuit phenomenon and the fault of Wall Street grow old. By the time McCullough is reduced to tributes to the NRA and the WPA, he has long worn out his audience.
A device that works better and longer is cinematographer John Schwartzmann's handling of the racing scenes, which emphasize quick cuts and extreme blurry close-ups a la Saving Private Ryan. Of course, the true racing fan will find it odd that the walk-up start of the famous match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral is not shown. The only possible explanation must have been the utter difficulty in filming horses doing anything predictable. In a 1947 movie of the same name starring Shirley Temple, the horses playing Seabiscuit and War Admiral finished in the wrong order so consistently during the shoot that the director finally decided to use newsreel footage of the race.
The actors in this movie do all that is asked of them. Jeff Bridges is a convincing wounded puppy. Chris Cooper gives his Tom Smith character the kind of laconic force Humphrey Bogart brought to bear, what critic John Crosby described as "that basilisk authority of his." Maguire's Red Pollard is the most finished portrait. As painted here, Pollard is the inarticulate poet, the embellisher of fantastic stories, the liver of imaginary lives. He is feisty and vulnerable at one and the same time, and so, too, self-destructive and indefatigable.
Several minor characters fare less well. As Charles Howard's supportive second wife, Marcela, Elizabeth Banks is eye candy, although a Snicker's. William H. Macy is largely squandered as comic-reliever "Tick-Tock" McLaughlin. War Admiral's owner, old money Samuel Riddle, is written and played as a comic-strip villain/fool.
True horse fans may get excited by the small role played by riding ace Gary Stevens as riding ace George "The Iceman" Woolf. Already some are predicting a second career for Stevens, but this is a premature prediction.
True horse fans may complain that there isn't enough racing in Seabiscuit, but there's plenty enough for the average movie-goer. Everything is a bit too clean and dressy, even the dirt and rags. And there are some notable Hollywood blunders, e.g., War Admiral is said to be more than "18 hands," which would be elephant-high.
Yet the true believer must ask this: does the movie show the thoroughbred as man's noblest conquest?
Yes and yes again.
And the average movie-goer? Hard to say, but someone wise once said there's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man.
Seabiscuit? Can do, can ... .
Where's the horse? Jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) searches for redemption in the form of Seabiscuit.