(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