Seabiscuit (2003)


Ebert:1/2 Rolling Stone:1/2 TV Guide:

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

I don't really like horses.  Even though it makes no sense to ascribe human attributes, I find horses to be arrogant animals.  I am also kind of afraid of horses, but that's true of pretty much all animals that are bigger than me.  Despite my irrational fear and prejudice I went to see Seabiscuit.  

The film has received favorable reviews and is the only film of the summer with Oscar buzz.  However, this Academy Award talk may be misplaced.  While Seabiscuit is a nice movie, it's over-inflated critically acclaimed pedigree may just be the result of it's proximity to the stupid fun films of summer.   

It's a great addition to the sports film genre though,  and expertly follows the formula of the category.  This time the hero who wins despite insurmountable odds is a horse and three men as opposed to just Rocky Balboa.  The film Seabiscuit most reminded me of is the Robert Redford baseball movie The Natural.  The sometimes gentle and sometimes rousing musical score, the soft expertly filmed cinematography, and the big come-back-from-an-injury ending that is one of the standards of the genre.  At the very least,  Seabiscuit made me want to watch The Natural again.

The story of Seabiscuit is told against the backdrop of The Great Depression and follows the lives of three men and their relation to the champion race horse.  Red Pollard is a poor boy who will do just about any job to survive although he has a way with riding horses and amateur boxing.  Tom Smith is an ex-cowboy and trainer who seems to have a magical insight into the disposition of horses.  And finally, Charles Howard is a very rich man who has lost everything in his life except his money.  The three men come together and train Seabiscuit to become the most famous underdog champion of the decade and an inspirational metaphor for survival during the Depression.  

The only thing I didn't like about the film was the periodic superfluous narration.  It only happens a few times during the movie but the voice of the narrator and his inflection reminded me of those old Disney nature films where the camera follows a beaver or some other animal as it goes about it's life tasks.  The reason for the voice-over, I suppose,  was to tie it to the depression era events of the time.  This was necessary because most of the film takes place at somewhat posh race tracks or at the opulent farm of Charles Howard where we quickly forget that there is a major Depression going on outside the grounds of his fabulously wealthy estate.

The primary special effect of the the film would be the cinematography of the race scenes.  These are the fireworks of the movie and are thrilling to even those who normally are not partial to horse racing.  The camera is right in the middle of the race.  I have recently been amazed at how cinematographers and directors are able to put the camera right into the action of a scene.  There is a sequence in The Matrix Reloaded where, during a highway chase, the camera dodges and weaves and even seems to go through solid objects.  Similarly in the documentary Winged Migration the camera is so close to it's subjects it seems to be part of the bird as it flies.  The same effect is used in Seabiscuit.  During the races we are given vantage points that previously were only seen by jockeys or perhaps the horses themselves.  At the very least, it illustrates the dangers faced by jockeys that we as spectators were never really aware of.  

All of the actors are wonderful.  Jeff Bridges as Seabiscuit owner Charles Howard has the sad eyes and soft voice of a broken man who is trying to put his life back together.  Tobey Maguire is perfect as Jockey Red Pollard.  Except for a somewhat quick temper, the role is a typical Maguire performance.  It will be interesting one day to see him play against type as a crazed serial killer or something.  Tick Tock McGlaughlin the fictional horse racing announcer is delightfully portrayed by William H. Macy as the comic relief during the sometimes tense racing scenes.  And finally Oscar winner Chris Cooper is simply magnificent as Seabiscuit's trainer Tom Smith.  After his award winning turn in last year's Adaptation and the brilliant John Sayles film Lone Star I now believe Cooper to be one of the best actors in America today.  He is a joy to behold in everything that he does.  

I suppose I should mention Seabiscuit.  The horse is never anthropomorphized by the film makers so we don't have to endure silly speculation as to his thoughts or perspective.  This was a very wise choice.  He's just a horse.  (A big scary horse.)

At the end of what I believe to be one of the best summers ever for movies, Seabiscuit is a strong finisher.  It's no Best Picture but it is a good picture and definitely worth the time.  It is an uplifting story that makes you feel happy when you leave the theatre.