Culture

Horse Power

Culture | Seabiscuit is a four-star story, but it's presented in a three-star film

Issue: "Capitol stampede in Texas," Aug. 9, 2003

Seabiscuit (rated PG-13 for some sexual situations and violent sports-related images) is likely to have its ardent admirers. It's a fine film that recounts a fantastic, true story. Aside from a brief, nonexplicit scene at a Mexican brothel and some bad language, it would be a great film for family enjoyment-and there haven't been many of those this summer.

Seabiscuit has enough going for it that any criticism is likely to frustrate and confound its admirers. So, treading lightly ...

The basics of the story are by now familiar to most, but the details are still remarkable. Most of the action takes place in the midst of the Great Depression. Three very different men are brought together around the celebrated rise of the title horse. Jeff Bridges plays Charles Howard, a successful used-car salesman who owns the horse but whose family life is marred by tragedy. His trainer is Tom Smith, played by Chris Cooper, a taciturn former cowboy whose open-range lifestyle is giving way to westward expansion. Tobey Maguire is Johnny "Red" Pollard, a mostly unsuccessful jockey who is fueled by anger at his parents for abandoning him at a young age.

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Seabiscuit himself connects the three, paralleling both their brokenness and unshakable drive. When Howard and Smith acquire Seabiscuit, he's a horse others had long since given up on-undersized, lazy, and untrainable. Slowly, Smith goes about teaching Seabiscuit "to be a horse again." In Pollard, Smith finds a suitable match for the horse, someone who will push himself and his horse to the limit.

Cinematographer John Schwartzman deserves much of the credit for the best parts of Seabiscuit. He gives the entire film a rich, golden hue, similar to his beautiful work on The Rookie. But it's the racing sequences that truly stand out-a good thing for a horse-racing movie. There's an immediacy to the races that will not fail to excite viewers, even if the human drama is less resonant. Director/screenwriter Gary Ross and Mr. Schwartzman, using both real and animatronic animals, achieve an astonishing beauty and clarity in these scenes. The speed and danger of the racetrack is conveyed without reducing the action to an impressionistic blur.

The film's only problems come down to Mr. Ross's script. Its ambition and intelligence is admirable, but Mr. Ross relies too frequently on movie language devices that undermine the historical reality of the story. For example, Mr. Ross uses two heavy-handed scenes to underline Howard's changing priorities: First, we see a long line of expensive racecars being pushed into Howard's stables early in the film, after they have been cleared of horses. Later, this same line of cars is wheeled out again, to make room for Seabiscuit. In another scene, trainer Smith observes both Seabiscuit and Pollard, in separate parts of a stable yard, fighting off adversaries. The story itself is so remarkable that this sort of oversimplified parallelism is unnecessary-and actually serves as a detriment.

Mr. Ross is also ambitious in adding not just period detail, but straightforward narrative history, voiced by historian David McCullough. These interludes are helpful in communicating Seabiscuit's historical context, but they also draw an oversimplified connection between the rise of Seabiscuit and FDR's New Deal policies. As FDR's public-works projects begin to take effect, Mr. McCullough intones, "for the first time in a long time, someone cared."

But these are quibbles. Seabiscuit is a four-star story presented in a three-star film. The film may not entirely do the story justice, but 60-plus years later, Seabiscuit has not lost his ability to capture the imagination of a nation.

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