Like the wounded nation that loved him, he was uncertain and half crippled. So in the depths of the Great Depression, when a knock-kneed thoroughbred named Seabiscuit rose up to outrun the elite racehorses of the day, he became a folk hero suited to his moment and a fixture in equine legend.
Still, the movie version of Seabiscuit seems a risky enterprise. Racing writer Laura Hillenbrand's long-legged bestseller (three years at the top of the charts) about the horse and the troubled men around him may have enthralled railbirds and non-racing fans alike, but the sport has suffered for years, and Hollywood has shunned horse-racing movies for a couple of decades now. The last good one, you could argue, was the underrated Casey's Shadow (1978), starring rumpled Walter Matthau as a broken-down Cajun horse trainer with a final shot at glory. Seabiscuit may sell tickets, but if it brings a new generation of fans to the track, that will be a miracle.
Adapted and directed by the observant Gary Ross (Dave, Pleasantville), the movie is stuffed with big, brightly colored ambition. Ross tries -- a bit too hard sometimes -- to equate Seabiscuit with the tonic of FDR's New Deal. Whenever our attention to this point wavers, we get another surge of Randy Newman score and another dose of historian David McCulloch, lecturing us on the soundtrack in study-for-the-midterm tones. Otherwise, though, this good, strong, feel-better stuff simply takes up for the underhorse -- Rocky on four legs. That old trope, of course, is what the moviemakers are counting on in the summer blockbuster season. Hollywood is about as likely to abandon its faith in emotional uplift as you and I are to win the Kentucky Derby.
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All right, to the starting gate. The tale of this plucky little thoroughbred was told once before (more or less) in an oversweet 1949 Shirley Temple vehicle called The Story of Seabiscuit. Let us not dwell on that. Hillenbrand's gift was to rediscover the damaged human players behind the animal, and Ross has admirably followed suit. In book and movie, Seabiscuit's trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), is a lone cowboy type known for secret quirks and long spells of silence, not for producing champions. His owner, Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, in full bluster), is a visionary California millionaire acquainted with boom and bust, and with personal tragedy. Seabiscuit's jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire, sans Spider-Man's red Lycra), is a half-blind former boxer who quotes Shakespeare and Coleridge and is battered by misfortune on and off the track.
No popcorn-munching, hero-starved audience could ask for more in the way of potential redemption, and these three gifted actors seem so at ease in their surroundings, you might guess they were all born in a barn. "You don't throw a whole life away," the taciturn trainer observes from beneath the brim of his hat, "just because it's banged up a little." Just so. In that light, it's nice to see jockey Gary Stevens, the winner of a dozen Triple Crown and Breeders Cup races, make his acting debut here, as the legendary rider Georgie "The Iceman" Woolf. Oft injured and twice retired, the ultra-natural Stevens may now have a new career in store.
Meanwhile, the crucial horse-racing sequences surpass the standards for sports-movie action. Coordinated by retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron (who also does a turn as jockey Charlie Kurtsinger), Seabiscuit's troubled, interrupted run to the top of racing, in 1937 and beyond, is a masterful blend of hoof-pounding thrills and unexpected human exchanges. Few things in life are as beautiful as sleek thoroughbreds in full flight (Seabiscuit himself is portrayed by half a dozen bay stand-ins), and McCarron, Ross and cinematographer John Schwartzman (Pearl Harbor) have perfectly captured the intimate rhythms of a sport usually observed at a distance, through binoculars. They also remind us that, in the midst of battle, race riders sometimes talk to each other. "He looks kinda small," Woolf says to Pollard as Seabiscuit pulls alongside. "He's gonna look a lot smaller in a minute," Pollard answers. By the time we arrive at the Biscuit's climactic match race against the great Eastern runner War Admiral, it's as if we've had the mount all along.
Ross gives us all the romance of the track, if not its essential odors and brashness, but after two hours, the horse has become part of us, just as he became a nationwide sensation. In the year that another unlikely hero, the ill-bred gelding Funnycide, failed to win the Triple Crown, we get a second chance to pick a champion. In the end, we also embrace three troubled souls -- Smith, Howard and Pollard -- who find salvation in the sunlit province of the homestretch. Corny? Yes. But don't be shamed by that lump in your throat. When brave striving gets Seabiscuit to the winner's circle one more time, simply go down there with him and feel the authentic tug of greatness.