Betting Blind

'Seabiscuit' keeps its big winner in the stable

Most people I know are rooting for Seabiscuit--the story of the little racehorse that could--to steal hearts and some of the summer box-office purse from Finding Nemo--the story of a similarly undersized and endearing nonhuman. But Seabiscuit blows the race, faltering for a bunch of reasons, the most obvious being that the horse doesn't have enough meaty scenes. After all, it was Seabiscuit--not his owner, his trainer, or even his jockey--that became an American idol, rating more newspaper column inches in 1938 than FDR or Hitler. And it's a good bet that most of those stories had a photo of the horse at the top.

Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling nonfiction page turner, Seabiscuit is basically a rescue fantasy about three wounded men and a broken-down, knobby-kneed horse who inspire one another to break records and even to come back against impossible odds. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was a self-made businessman who started out repairing bicycles, switched to selling cars, and amassed a fortune huge enough to ride out the Depression and to bankroll his yen for some racehorses. You might say he was an all-around transportation man. A natural-born optimist, Howard suffered an irreparable loss when his teenage son was killed in a driving accident. Bridges, perhaps the greatest American actor of his generation, conveys Howard's own amazement that, profound as his grief is, his high spirits and confidence in the future never desert him. I could have done without the shots where Howard is posed so we can't miss his resemblance (in attitude, at least) to FDR, but Bridges is not to blame for that.

To fill the hole in his heart, Howard adopts all-but-lost causes. He buys Seabiscuit, an abused three-year-old with a losing record, because he has a feeling about the horse, and so does his eccentric, monosyllabic trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper). The two men also have a feeling about jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who's even more beat-up than Seabiscuit. Pollard bonds with the horse from the moment he enters his stall. They all bond--the three men and the horse--and, as a male bonding movie, Seabiscuit is better than most. Much thanks for that goes to the three stars, who work extremely well together. Cooper and Maguire (who has never been less mannered) are as vivid as Bridges. Director Gary Ross has a talent for easing his actors into their characters, and he has an eye for unknowns as well. Elizabeth Banks, who plays Howard's second wife, has a fine shining handsomeness, as does Gary Stevens, a real-life jockey with a striking resemblance to George Woolf, the jockey he plays in the movie. William H. Macy provides the comic relief as a motor-mouthed radio track reporter.

Long shot: Tobey Maguire in 'Seabiscuit'
Universal Studios
Long shot: Tobey Maguire in 'Seabiscuit'

The problem is that Ross, who also wrote the screenplay, is so focused on the relationship of the owner, the trainer, and the jockey that he keeps shunting the horse into the background or out of the picture entirely. He devotes the first 45 minutes of the movie to laying out the back story--what each of the three characters was doing before luck brought them and the horse together in the same place at the same time. Once Seabiscuit makes his long-delayed first entrance, you'd think the camera would just eat him up. Instead we get a couple of extremely short sequences where some of the horse's idiosyncrasies are displayed, and then the focus returns to the humans. The only scene in which the horse himself is treated like a player in this drama of underdog triumph is when he walks alongside the imperious War Admiral just before their match race. You fear for Seabiscuit, a veritable pony compared to the Triple Crown winner, who looks here like he's auditioning for the next Terminator movie.

The test of a horse racing movie is the handful of races themselves, and here, Ross proves that he's maybe a bit too high-minded for the task. Let's put aside the technical problems of the overuse of Equicizer--a workout machine for riders, employed so that, in close-up, Maguire's movements suggest that he's up on Seabiscuit even when he's not. The Equicizer shots are never convincingly integrated into the racing sequences, not to mention that they place the attention on the jockeys rather than the horses--because the horses aren't really there. But almost every choice Ross makes in the racing scenes is guaranteed to disrupt our adrenaline flow. He cuts away from the match race to show us '30s photographs of families clustered around their radios listening to the broadcast. In the film's finale--Seabiscuit trying to make a comeback at Santa Anita--Ross goes to slow motion, turning the horse into a myth even before we've had the pleasure of seeing him fly across the finish line. If you factor in the dead weight of Randy Newman's sappy score and the folksy voiceover narration, you'll appreciate how fine the line is between what's referred to in Hollywood as "an Academy picture" and a historical documentary on PBS.

 
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