If you are very lucky, who won’t know anything about Seabiscuit’s story so that this remarkable true tale can unfold for you in all its improbable glory. Gary Ross’ adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, also titled Seabiscuit, is a heartwarming, uplifting experience and while such adjectives are not usually paired with films that are also sophisticated and intelligent, that is not the case here.
As in the book, the particular of Seabiscuit’s story, a scrappy little horse with everything wrong with it that nevertheless becomes a racetrack star, are juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the Depression times in which he raced. Here, as in the book and in those times as well, Seabiscuit becomes a metaphor for a population down on its luck and looking for a second chance, taken up as a hero by those same regular folk who figured if this plucky little equine could make it, so could they. Few horses were less likely to have achieved greatness. He was too small, too gentle until his owners abused him, and possessing a gait that was not in lockstep regulation with what was expected of a winner. In short, the perfect example of what a champion should not be. His humans suffered similar disadvantages. His jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire with crisp, curly hair), was too big. The scion of a well-to-do family brought to ruin by the stock market crash of 1929, he was raised on poetry and horseback riding then ended up struggling as a middling jockey and a bad boxer. His trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), was a broken down ex-cowboy with an almost supernatural way with horses who took to riding the rails and sleeping in fields when ranching didn’t work out. His owner, Charles Howard (
The film gets off to a slow start, as we meet each character during the ups and mostly downs that get them to Seabiscuit and legend. Once these four creatures have come together, though, the film takes off with the same galloping gusto that its namesake possessed. While there three big races in SEABISCUIT, each one vitally important, but for very different reasons and well-photographed from the spectator- and the jockey-eye view, Ross has wisely chosen to concentrate on character development, the better to truly care what happens at that finish line. Bridges has little to do beyond being benevolently paternal, but he does it with a sly twinkle in his eye and without a trace of condescension. Cooper gives a crusty, determined texture to Smith, but with a gentle, idealistic streak and a wicked sense of humor. It’s a good thing Cooper can create novels out of small moments considering the short shrift his character gets in the back story department. But this is Maguire’s film. His character is easily the most fleshed out, and rightly so, picking up on the odd parallels in his life and that of the horse he rode. He makes Red a study in eager desperation tempered with a poignant fatalism that doesn’t dare to believe the good luck fate hands him. We follow him through poundings that pass for boxing matches and races in which the jockeys are just as brutal to one another as any opponent in the ring. And we see youthful hope and exuberance turn into the thousand-mile stare of desperation and then, tentatively, back again as Seabiscuit’s career, and his, takes off. It’s worth noting that even Fighting Furrari, the horse cast as Seabiscuit, has a sparkle and darn if the animal doesn’t emote on cue.
For exposition, to bring non-racing buffs and non-historians up to speed, we have vintage newsreel footage with David McCullough, that icon of PBS documentary narration, reading passages from Hillenbrand’s book. It has its moments, but for another, less exalted examination of times past, there is William H. Macy as Tick Tock McGlaughlin, a hack radio reporter with a rapid-fire delivery, cliché-ridden style, and a pin-up festooned lair from which he broadcasts. McGlaughlin captures the temper of the times, specifically the public’s worship of Seabiscuit, and Macy adds another loopy character to his resume, lighting up the screen with every bug-eyed exclamation.
There are some calculated conventions here as Ross adds a touch of the mythic to his film, things such as a warm and cozy color palette, swelling music at all the right moments, and our actors arranged, I include the horses, of course, into carefully constructed heroic tableaux. Never mind. Ross has written and directed a terrific adaptation of a story that should never have been forgotten. And he’s done so with the verve, respect, and wonder that it deserves.