Instead, Seabiscuit lets the racehorse take a backseat to the stories of three two-legged characters. In adapting Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling biography, Ross suggests, with little subtlety, that Seabiscuit provided personal redemption as well as race-course victory for three men: his owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), his trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and his jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire).
Seabiscuit himself doesn't gallop into view for more than half an hour. Ross begins the film in 1910 with a lesson in how the assembly-line production of the Model T made America more dependent on the horseless carriage than the horse. Howard goes from selling bicycles to Buicks, and in hindsight, ironies mark his business success. He exhorts customers, "Trade in your horse today," and after buying a sprawling estate, he converts the stable to a garage for his racecars.
Meanwhile, Smith works as a wandering horse-whisperer type, riding the open plains only to be halted by new fences that separate the range from the road. Pollard, who grew up the son of a book-loving bourgeois family, showed an early aptitude for horses. When his family loses everything in the Depression, he becomes a jockey in viciously competitive races. In the first one we see, he and a rival racer punch and lash each other with their crops like Ben-Hur charioteers.
Howard turns his back on cars when a tragic auto accident occurs, and his new wife (Elizabeth Banks) spurs an interest in horses. Howard likes Smith's gentle if "crackpot" ways with animals and hires him as a trainer, and soon fractious Pollard takes a job in Howard's stables.
Seabiscuit moves with the speed of a plow horse before the title role appears. Biographer David McCullough, who sounds much like the late John Chancellor, narrates the film, and his bland, dry voice would suit a Very Special Network News retrospective. When he drones about how the New Deal revived the American spirit, accompanied by the drowsy uplift of Randy Newman's soundtrack, it's like anesthesia is being pumped into the cinema.
William H. Macy provides an early counteragent as a sportscaster with snappy patter and wacky sound effects. And when Seabiscuit himself emerges from the morning fog, intriguing details come with him. The young horse was dismissed as "lazy" for his huge appetite and fondness for sleep, and he was maltreated by his previous owners. Smith likes Seabiscuit's ornery spirit, and in an amusing shot, looks from Seabiscuit resisting his handlers to Pollard brawling with other stable boys. They're a match made in heaven.
Most of the horse races look alike in Seabiscuit, even though the hooves sound like thunder and there's an exciting feeling of being shoulder-to-shoulder with the jockeys. The film's best stretch comes after Seabiscuit becomes the finest, fastest horse on the West Coast, and Howard and company try to get a "Match Race" with War Admiral, the purebred champion of the prestigious East Coast races.
War Admiral proves to be the Apollo Creed to Seabiscuit's Rocky Balboa -- a horse for the underdog. Lively montages show Howard challenging War Admiral's fat-cat owner. Team Seabiscuit spies on the rival horse and comes up with unconventional ways to compete. And since the race has just two horses going head-to-head, you can easily comprehend the racing strategies.
The funny thing about Seabiscuit is that some of its unlikeliest, most cliched plot twists actually happened, including the "win one for the Gipper" moment with a character listening to the big race from a hospital bed. At least Seabiscuit doesn't win all of his major races, which provides more suspense than usual for a historical sports film. But Seabiscuit is compelling enough that Ross needn't hammer so hard his theme that "Everyone deserves a second chance."
Seabiscuit's leads could not be better cast. Bridges gives Howard's sales pitches plenty of likable blarney (reminiscent of his car salesman role in Tucker), but he also conveys the character's charity and melancholy: His hot air surrounds a warm heart. Cooper nails Smith's humble honesty and looks miserably uncomfortable whenever he's made to pose for publicity photos.
And Pollard nicely suits the moody charisma of Maguire, who shows the difference between being haunted and simply petulant. When he calls Seabiscuit "Pops," quotes Shakespeare to the press or swaps whoppers with the other jockeys, Maguire seems like a charmer from an earlier era.
Yet Ross makes Seabiscuit too old-fashioned to be a real champion. He made his directorial debut with the 1950s TV spoof Pleasantville, and his follow-up film is all too pleasant and soft at the edges. Seabiscuit isn't quite a summer film for the entire family, but one for the parents and grandparents of the teens seeing Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Seabiscuit should satisfy the neglected older audience, but won't bring people together the way that the horse did.
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