Seabiscuit


Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Michael Angarano, Ed Lauter, Gianni Russo, Sam Bottoms, Dyllan Christopher, Gary Stevens, Royce D. Applegate, Valerie Mahaffey, Michael O’Neill, Annie Corley, David McCullough (voice), Michelle Arthur. Directed by Gary Ross

There are true stories and then there is the truth. Hollywood has a habit of obscuring one for the other. I say this because upon first glance at this movie, one is going to believe that some of the men who are front and center in Seabiscuit were saints, or at least close to it. Be aware as you watch this, that it is more or less an idealized version of the true story that surrounded one of the most legendary racehorses of our time and don’t let that fact get in the way of a truly wonderful movie.

The Great Depression hit some men harder than others. For automobile dealer Charles Howard (Bridges), a car accident that took the life of his 15-year-old son was a forceful reminder that the sunny days of the ’20s were over. Although Howard was able to retain much of his fortune, he found himself searching to fill the empty void in his life, one that cost him his first wife (Mahaffey) although he would later find the spirited Marcela (Banks) while on a trip to Mexico.

For Tom Smith (Cooper), the end of a lifestyle that he loved and an era in American history came hand-in-hand. One of the last of the true range-riding cowboys, Smith found himself in an increasingly mechanized age where the once endless prairies had vanished into subdivisions, towns and fenced-off ranches. A man who had forgotten more about horses than most of the rest of the country combined actually knew, he found it difficult to find a good job utilizing the skills and knowledge he had accumulated over years in the saddle. Adjusting to the 20th century was proving difficult to a man who was born 50 years too late.

Red Pollard (McGuire) had gone through life fighting his way uphill for everything he had, literally. Forced into a foster home after financial difficulties had beset his family, he had a massive chip on his shoulder for most of the rest of his life. He had tried his hand at prizefighting, but wound up beaten, bloody and more often than not, alone. An excellent rider, he was considered to be too big to be a jockey and there were otherwise precious few jobs that involved riding horses.

These three men were united by an unlikely horse named Seabiscuit. Small, ungraceful and none too fast, Seabiscuit’s career on the racetrack had been less than spectacular. But then Howard bought the horse and hired Smith to train him, and Pollard to ride him. And it is this particular confluence of people, time and events that would create magic – and sports history.

At first, Seabiscuit was met with a certain amount of apathy. But as he began to win, the canny publicity hound Howard began to market his horse like no other sports figure in the country (except for maybe Babe Ruth). The right sort of people began to get behind the underdog horse, such as radio reporter Tick Tock McLaughlin (Macy). And Seabiscuit continued to win and win and win.

Off in the distance, coming from the east, War Admiral — thought of as the Perfect Racehorse — had won racing’s coveted Triple Crown. The snobbish Eastern bankers who own War Admiral think at first the undersized horse from the West Coast is beneath their notice. Howard pushes in the press for a match race, leading to an epic confrontation that pitted the two greatest horses of all time, who happened to be at their peaks simultaneously.

Of course, Seabiscuit plays with the heartstrings – unashamedly and sometimes unnecessarily. The story of the great horse is great movie material; it had been done before – in an godawful 1949 tearjerker The Story of Seabiscuit starring Shirley Temple – but the horse with a heart bigger than a nation’s pain deserved a much better biography and this is it. Bridges, Cooper and McGuire all handle their roles respectfully, trying not to succumb to the over-sentimentality of the script, and bringing the essence of the characters to life. They have a good chemistry together which is immensely important given that this is as much their story as Seabiscuit’s.

Director Gary Ross wisely lets the visuals speak for themselves; the racing scenes are well-executed. Although the story is Hollywoodized somewhat, the facts are actually stuck fairly closely to, which is to be commended. They also do a great job of recreating the gait and style of the legendary Seabiscuit.

The movie is inspiring, if occasionally treacly. The story itself lends itself to a big stage, and Ross provides it for his fine cast. Getting past the sentiment can be tricky, but this is a story about perhaps the ultimate underdog and the movie has in ten short years become a sports movie classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Great underdog story. Excellent chemistry among the leads. Inspiring. Terrific racing sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prone to over-sentimentality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexuality and there is some violence within the context of the sport.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sold 5.5 million DVD copies which at the time was a record for a drama.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on horse racing in the 1930s which includes not only the Seabiscuit-War Admiral rivalry but also other great horses of the era. The Blu-Ray includes newsreel footage of the actual race and an A&E channel special on the real Seabiscuit.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $148.3M on an $87M production budget; the film fell shy of recouping it’s production costs during its theatrical run although it turned a very tidy profit on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Now You See Me

 

Secretariat


Secretariat

Secretariat is neck and neck.

(Disney) Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwath, Fred Dalton Thompson, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Michael Harding, Nestor Serrano, Drew Roy, Dylan Baker, Kevin Connolly. Directed by Randall Wallace

There may be no other event as beautiful as a horse race. Something about a horse running down a track takes the breath away; while I’ve never been a huge fan of the sport, I understand the passion it inspires. It’s very easy to get caught up in.

Penny Chenery Tweedy (Lane) is a Denver housewife, raising four kids and living the life of the upper middle class when she gets a terrible phone call; her mother has passed away. She goes back home to Virginia for the funeral. Her father Christopher Chenery (Glenn) is ill, lucid only for brief moments. He runs Meadow Farm, a horse ranch that has fallen onto hard times. Penny and her brother Hollis (Baker) realize that there is a lot of issues to be decided about the farm’s future. Penny decides to stay on and close up loose ends; Hollis means to sell the farm and get what he can for it, but Penny is a little less crazy about the idea.  

Aided by Mrs. Ham (Martindale), the loyal secretary to her father and virtually a family member, Penny begins to take a closer look at the farm and finds that things are dire, but not irretrievably so. One thing they do have that is worth money is a potential foal that was sired by Bold Ruler, a champion sire. There are actually two foals, each with a different mare on the farm. The owner of Bold Ruler, Ogden Phipps (Cromwell), one of the richest men in America, made a handshake deal with her father that a coin would be flipped to determine which foal would go with him and which one would stay with Meadow Farm.  

In the meantime, Penny lets go of the trainer for the farm and at the advice of family friend Bull Hancock (Thompson), she hires Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), a well-respected trainer who had recently retired but was finding retirement doesn’t agree with him. Penny winds up losing the coin flip but gets the foal she wanted; Bold Ruler was known for siring very fast horses but the mare Somethingroyal had given birth to horses with stamina. The combination could create a potential superhorse, but Phipps goes with conventional wisdom and takes the progeny of Hasty Matelda, a horse that had delivered much more successful racehorses at the time.

When Lucien, Penny and groom Eddie Sweat (Ellis) witness the birth of the foal, they are stunned to see it rise up to its feet, something that takes most foals longer. Lucien is in awe; clearly they are in the presence of something very special.

Penny falls immediately in love with the horse whom she nicknames Big Red for its color; initially Lucien isn’t sure of the horse’s work ethic and is suspicious of his tendency to overeat but the horse that is named Secretariat (after ten other names had been rejected by the Racing Association) turns out to be a powerful champion.

Getting him to the Triple Crown races of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes will be a near-miracle; the farm is close to foreclosure and there is little money left. To make things worse, Penny isn’t taken seriously as an owner in a world that is dominated by men, mainly men from money (like Phipps).

Most people know the Secretariat went on to win the Triple Crown in 1973, the first horse in a quarter century to achieve that feat (Seattle Slew would win it in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, but no horse has won it since). Some may well know the spectacular fashion he accomplished it in, but most people agree that Secretariat was the most dominant horse of his time, and perhaps ever. Perhaps only Seabiscuit alone was more popular than Big Red.

Like Titanic, the movie’s end is a foregone conclusion. What makes it interesting is the behind-the-scenes look at what was going on and what Penny Tweedy overcame. You can’t really call this an underdog movie, although Disney is marketing it as such; it would be like calling the story of the 1995-6 Chicago Bulls an underdog story. You can’t call the best athlete in his sport an underdog, and Secretariat fit that description to a “T”.

Director Wallace, who previously wrote Braveheart and directed We Were Soldiers and The Man in the Iron Mask, understood the dilemma of having a sports story without an underdog per se, so rather than focusing on the horse, he focuses on the owner and her battle to gain acceptance in the masculine hierarchy of the horse racing world.

Lane plays her as an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, she’s strong as steel, her daddy’s daughter who is unwilling to give up or give in. On the other, she’s a typical housewife of the late 60s and early 70s, the happy homemaker who cleans house, cooks dinner, raises the kids and supports her hubby (Walsh). Lane integrates both elements of the personality effortlessly (I suspect that she relates to Penny Tweedy very strongly) and makes the character heroic in her struggle. 

Malkovich can be a bit twitchy and he does have his quirks here, most of which the real Lucien Laurin possessed (the loud slacks, the hideous hats and so on). However, Malkovich reigns in his performance (no pun intended) quite well and allows the volatile Lucien to take center stage. Thompson and Glenn both are memorable in their brief screen time. Secretariat’s hot-tempered jockey Ron Turcotte is played by real-life jockey Thorwath and it brings realism to the racing scenes which are well-done in general.

The movie is going to inevitably be compared to Seabiscuit and that really doesn’t do it justice. That horse was an unlikely champion, a horse that didn’t come from bluebloods of breeding, but became a popular attraction as much as a racing champion (although he won his share of races). Seabiscuit was revered; Secretariat was respected.

There has been some complaining, mostly from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon Magazine, that Wallace, an avowed Christian, had turned the movie into a kind of Tea Party manifesto with overtly Christian themes. Quite frankly, while there is a quote from the Book of Job at the beginning and ending of the movie and a couple of hymns on the soundtrack, this is no more Christian than Braveheart was. As for its conservative leanings, well, I don’t think it was particularly endorsing a return to the period as O’Hehir seems to think it does as it was merely depicting that time. O’Hehir complains that no-one in the movie mentions the Vietnam War, and yet Penny’s daughter is shown to be an anti-war activist. Which war did O’Hehir think they were referring to?

Disney is known for their underdog sports stories, from Miracle to The Rookie to Invincible but this one doesn’t really fit the format, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You can only watch Hoosiers so many times, after all. With the strong performances by its leads, racing sequences that utilize digital cameras to bring viewers closer into the action than ever before, this becomes a solid sports movie that doesn’t really fit the “underdog” label real well, but does fit in as quality entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Really strong performances by Malkovich and Lane, as well as some compelling racing footage.

REASONS TO STAY: Pales in comparison to Seabiscuit. I never got that sense of overcoming overwhelming odds that other sports movies portray.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words but mainly okay for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The trophy for the Triple Crown seen after the Belmont was the actual trophy won by Secretariat that was loaned to the production by the Kentucky Derby Museum. While most of the racing footage was recreations done for the film, the footage of the Preakness seen on the living room TV set of the Tweedys was the actual race footage from 1973.

HOME OR THEATER: In all honesty I’m really torn. Some of the scenes look really good on the big screen but at the end of the day, I think home viewing is perfectly okay for this one.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Red