Aug. 10, 2003 – "Seabiscuit" is a sure bet if you're in the mood for a feel-good movie about a time when simple horse sense was the most satisfying thing millions of Americans had going for them.
Seabiscuit never won the triple crown — he never even raced in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — but he won more money than any other horse up to that time and he won the hearts and minds of a nation desperate for something to believe in.
Those who lived through the Great Depression — not that there was anything great about it — need no introduction to the times or to the horse. Nor, probably, do those whose parents had been there and done that. For everyone else, archival photographs and a voiceover intoned by historian David McCullough are interspersed throughout the film.
It's as good a way as any to absorb a little of the nation's history.
The movie is based on Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling book "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," published two years ago. Universal acquired the rights in 1998 while she was writing it and then partnered with DreamWorks on the production. The promos quote Hillenbrand as saying the film "is everything I hoped it would be and more."
The story — faithfully told, except for shortcuts eliminating some key characters — is of a small racehorse with crooked legs who was abused in his first three years of boondocks-circuit racing and the four men who changed his life, as he changed theirs. (Sorry, ladies; the women are strictly window dressing in this one.)
Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges) moves West as the motorcar is catching on across the land and makes himself a lot of money selling Buicks in the Bay Area — enough that he is able to weather the Depression. Bowed by the death of his son and the failure of his marriage, he decides to buy a race horse.
Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a "horse whisperer" kind of trainer, is nursing a lame animal back to health even while acknowledging that it will never race again when Howard meets up with him.
Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey McGuire) comes from a family that discusses the classics at the dinner table. Reduced to scrabbling after the stock market crash, his parents see a chance to work as a jockey as his best hope and hand him over to a trainer who quickly teaches him the facts of life, including the vicious cheating rampant before the days of instant video replays.
Bridges, Cooper and McGuire all do journeyman jobs with these characters you love to like. Supporting them are two more superb personifications — Georgie "Iceman" Woolf (played with consummate cool by real-life Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens), who sat in on Seabiscuit when Pollard was laid up with injuries; and "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin (William H. Macy), a fictional Santa Anita racetrack announcer who's such a hoot you've got to forgive the screenwriter for making him up. And that would be Gary Ross ("Pleasantville"), who also directed.
Seabiscuit himself is played by at least six different horses in the film. One Web site says eight, and it's Horsecity.com,which makes you think they should know. Check it out for a description of how the race sequences were filmed to get the finishes "right."
Seabiscuit lost his first 17 races and won just nine out of 47 for his first owner. For Howard, he made 89 runs, finishing 61 times in the money — 33 wins, 15 places and 13 shows. The two biggest wins, and major scenes in the movie, were the 1938 match race at Pimlico against War Admiral, a towering triple crown winner with an arrogant Eastern Establishment owner, and the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap of 1940.
Hillenbrand's take on why Seabiscuit so caught the nation's fancy is that he represented the confluence of key factors: the eagerness of a Depression-weary population to identify with an indomitable underdog; his owner's shameless huckstering; and the emergence of a national mass culture thanks to a radio in every home, wirephotos in the daily press and newsreels at the movies.
Timing probably has to do with the film's reception now, too: "Seabiscuit" brings that all home two-thirds of a century later to a nation almost as eager for something to believe in.
"Seabiscuit" is rated PG-13 for "some sexual situations and violent sports-related images." The "situations" are barely worth mentioning. The "images" are mostly of Pollard getting beat up repeatedly in boxing bouts that offer a potential, if painful, opportunity to earn a few bucks.
The film is playing at Sunny Isle Theaters.
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