Bitch all you want about what’s wrong with Seabiscuit. Unlike Laura Hillenbrand’s dark, densely reported best seller, Gary Ross’ movie version is rose-tinted, skin-deep and wrinkle-free — more cotton candy than cutting edge. But how do you not love Seabiscuit, a puny, knobby-kneed Depression-era racehorse best known for napping and noshing until three men — all as dysfunctional as he is — changed his life and turned him into a champion? He’s the true hero of the movie summer.
The plot would collapse under its own cliches if it weren’t true. Never mind that Ross, writer of Big and Dave and writer and director of Pleasantville, takes his tactful time getting to the point. He begins with a lesson on 1930s America narrated by historian David McCullough (Truman, John Adams), complete with vintage photos. We learn that assembly lines are the beginning and the end of imagination.
The horse? Not yet. First we meet Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), the auto mogul (‘I wouldn’t spend more than five dollars on the best horse in America’) who loses his young son in a car accident and loses himself in grief. Next up is Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a horse wrangler with no use for people. Then there’s jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), abandoned by his homeless family and forced to puke up his meals to stay thin for the game. Loners all, until the divorced Charles marries Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), a horsewoman who opens him up again to the possibilities in life, no matter what package they come in.
Enter Seabiscuit — a third of the movie in — descended from the great Man-O-War but a lazy bugger with a bad temper. A horse made for this owner, this trainer, this jockey. Seabiscuit is off to the races, and so is the movie. In a series of scenes, expertly shot by John Schwartzman (The Rookie) and edited by William Goldenberg (Ali), the gluepot (ten horses played Seabiscuit) takes to the track like Rocky on four skinny legs.
The races are tremendously exciting. Tension is highest during the match race between Seabiscuit and Triple Crown winner War Admiral — what with Red sidelined by a crippling leg injury and George ‘The Iceman’ Woolf, sensationally played by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, riding the Biscuit. And all hail William H. Macy, who generates big laughs as radio tout Tick-Tock McGlaughlin.
But it’s the human drama that means the most to Ross and, ultimately, to the audience. And the actors do the story proud. Bridges anchors the film with simplicity and strength. And though Smith is practically a chatterbox compared to the real Silent Tom, Cooper builds a complex, nuanced character.
Maguire has the toughest spot. The demons of alcohol and inadequacy that shattered the bitter, half-blind Red are hard to read on Maguire’s unlined face. But he imbues the role with feeling that pays off when Red and the Biscuit, both injured, help to heal each other.
Seabiscuit is unabashedly hokey, but would you want it any other way? In an era of cynical junk (did anyone say Bad Boys II?), Ross restores the good name of crowd-pleasing. Hipsters will be allergic; this is one for your inner sap.