Regular readers know (or are expected to know) that I enjoy only two sports: boxing and horse racing. Sadly, movies about these two subjects almost always suck, probably having something to do with the fact that most of boxing’s competitors are egomaniacal sociopaths and that the typical horse race lasts for only two minutes.
And so we come to Seabiscuit, the true story of a small, unruly race horse of great breeding but poor disposition who found himself sold for scrap. Despite his attitude, he eventually became one of the greatest racers in history. (Believe it or not there’s already been one Seabiscuit-inspired movie… the first one starring Shirley Temple.)
As horses don’t draw the crowds to the theaters on their own, this is also the story of the three men who came together to coax Seabiscuit to success. Foremost is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), an assembly line worker who moved to California in a bid to make his fortune selling cars. There’s also the too-big, blind-in-one-eye jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire, his hairdo alone cause for intrigue), whose rough-and-tumble past and present mirrors Seabiscuit’s. And finally, there’s trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a quiet, yokelish man who talks straight and prefers to sleep outdoors.
How they come together is happenstance: Driven to Tijuana by financial troubles, gambling, and available alcohol (this being the time of not just the Great Depression but Prohibition too), Howard eventually decides to invest some of his remaining fortune in a thoroughbred, adding Pollard and Smith as his crew.
Smith does his magic on Seabiscuit and trains him to be a champ, a laborious process made all the more difficult by Pollard’s oversized stature (for a jockey, that is). And amazingly, the pint-size stallion pulls it out, becoming the winningest horse in California and a celebrity among an adoring public with not much else to do. Eventually, Seabiscuit challenges the other famous horse of his era: War Admiral, an enormous horse which won the Triple Crown. (Seabiscuit, based on the West coast, didn’t race in the events.) Their ‘match race,’ a head to head duel to see which horse was really the best, is part of racing legendry. And the story goes on further from there…
How much of this is history and how much is Hollywood I don’t know (having not read the book), but I can tell you this: The story of Seabiscuit is one of this summer’s few real treats, an inspiring and heartfelt tale about overcoming obstacles and finding hope when there should be none. Sure, some of the film’s hokey moments are over the top attempts at dragging out the tears (I highly doubt a vet ever suggested putting the champ horse to sleep after a minor injury, when thousands of dollars of stud fees were in his future), but for the most part, Seabiscuit comes across as the real deal. Our audience clapped whenever he won a race. Jaded though I may be, I fell in love with the little guy.
The story is told in sketches and glances, never entering a scene until we need to see what happens (or happened). Many events skip over the obvious and are left to the imagination, including a fateful car wreck that ultimately sends Howard on his quest for something. Other scenes are laid out in all their glory, notably the races, which let us ride along in the thick of it thanks to a moving crane that frequently dips in between the riders. (On the other hand, the close-up reverse shots of Maguire and the other jockeys are less successful: The bobbing faux horses they’re riding on are about as realistic as a My Little Pony.)
Despite an early Oscar push for Maguire and rumors to the contrary, this is not really an actor’s movie. Bridges and Cooper don’t really bring any inspiration to their roles, and while Maguire is interesting, it’s mainly because of the weight he lost and look he creates for the part rather than any specific uniqueness he brings to the role. Rather, this is a movie that’s driven by a stellar script and masterful editing that always has us wondering how far this horse can go. We know Seabiscuit will win races and end up a champion, but how big of one? Every obstacle thrown in his way seems like it will be the end of his career (and the film), but Seabiscuit keeps on running — for 2 1/2 hours, I should point out — adding unexpected acts one after another. It’s pretty funny, too (largely thanks to William H. Macy, hamming it up as a radio announcer).
My only other beef aside from the length and the phony horse heads is a narration that isn’t needed, reminding us how bad the Depression was over stock photography. There’s also an occasionally used flashback bit that wouldn’t be so bad, except it often flashes back to scenes we just saw five minutes before. It’s laughable, but fortunately it doesn’t see much use.
Ultimately I let the niggling stuff slip away and found myself a fan of ‘The Biscuit’ along with everyone else. Even if you’re not into the sport, trust me: It may look like a long shot, but this one’s a real winner.
Looking for a biscuit.