Director: Gary Ross
Stars: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper
Release Company: Universal, Dreamworks
MPAA Rating: PG-13
"People think we found a broken down horse and fixed him, but he fixed us, every one of us, and I guess we kinda fixed each other, too."
As jockey Johnny “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire) sums up the theme developed in Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling nonfiction account of the “underdog” race horse that inspired a nation suffering through the Great Depression, the overblown Seabiscuit thankfully winds down to its last few minutes. Although it's not the worst movie of the year, Universal Studio's mainstream entry may be the most ponderous exercise of the summer since it promises filet mignon, only to deliver oats and hay. The ubiquitous trailers promote the idea of “finding an American legend” at local theaters on July 25, but most honest Americans are destined to be disappointed unless they lower their expectations and anticipate a biopic manufactured for television screens instead. With platitudes like “Everybody loses a couple, and you either pack-up and you go home, or you keep fighting” director Gary Ross clearly aims at mainstream America with its pedantic “feel good” message about the “little horse that could” and its mirrored entourage—a neophyte owner, an oversized jockey, and an eccentric old school trainer.
Running 140 minutes (but feeling like three hours), Seabiscuit signals unfounded pretentiousness within the first few minutes by resorting to Ken Burns documentary style period archive photographs complete with voice-over from historian David McCullough for added weight. Similar historical inserts throughout the film blatantly blare the film's theme into the consciousness of the viewer, deliberately slowing the pace and blunting potential emotional impact. A clear indicator of director Gary Ross' lazy or inept screenwriting, these pompous voice-overs provide a safeguard for the studio on the other hand—as a last resort they can sell the film to PBS should it completely flop at the box office.
Part of the film's problem lies with its structure. Many potentially interesting stories, besides the main one of the horse itself and jockey, are outlined. Owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) and trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) are also briefly profiled in an extended prologue designed to provide psychological insights into each man, but the selected excerpts make their motivations so obvious that pre-schoolers can predict future events. Tragedy in Howard's life, paired with abandonment in Pollard's, makes for an easily discerned father-son style relationship. Additionally, the fact that lone wolf Smith takes a special interest in a broken down horse clearly signals two inevitable plot twists, and conveniently allows for one of the trailer's memorable quotes: “You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little.” Any one of these stories could form a movie; thus by attempting to encompass all three, Seabiscuit wanders all over the backstretch and has no finishing kick.
Another structural problem results from a dual “climax” with the second one feeling more like an afterthought. When the film finally gets around to its main narrative, Seabiscuit is built up as the long shot that has no real business racing against top horses. Despite noble lineage from legendary Man o' War (selected by Associated Press as the Horse of the Century), the colt is a runt and initially rejected as a serious racing candidate. After finding his dream match with the right team of handlers, Seabiscuit establishes himself as the top race horse in the west (and populist favorite) just as giant (18 hands tall) War Admiral wins racing's Triple Crown. Thus, a match race between the two develops into a Luke Skywalker duel with Darth Vader on November 1, 1938, with Howard agreeing to all terms of the “evil” dark side, essentially giving War Admiral home field advantage at Pimlico Race Track. Heard by some forty million people, the historic race contains the usual pattern of obstacles before the eventual tear-jerking ending. Yet there remains another story to be told. Historically, such a tale is part of the record with both Pollard and Seabiscuit suffering debilitating leg injuries, only to make a comeback. However, Ross' retelling of the tale is so drab that the added half-hour results mostly in increased seat twitching.
Tobey Maguire's decision to come back to this project after backing out won't net him any bonus acting credits, as he merely hits his mark in a paint-by-numbers role. Maguire may have provided more while filming, but those moments likely hit the cutting floor since the film has so much ground to cover. His best moments involve getting beat to a pulp or getting his leg smashed while his worst occurs when he serves as an over the top parallel character “symbol” to rebellious Seabiscuit. As the horse thrashes its handlers, a long shot simultaneously shows Maguire angrily swinging a bucket at his stablemates—an obvious ploy that allows mainstream Cineplex goers to titter “knowingly.” After Maguire sees the final cuts, he'll be glad that he's committed for additional sequels of his more nuanced Spider-Man character.
Despite the overall prosaic treatment, Seabiscuit does contain delights. Playful banter between Pollard and the world's greatest jockey George Woolf (Gary Stevens) provides a nice touch of realism between competitors that truly respect each other and leads to a warm bond. Supporting actors give life to the narrative as well. William Macy contributes much needed comic relief as Tick Tock McGlaughlin, a sports announcer that supplies rumors and sound effects over the radio waves. Vastly underrated Jeff Bridges delivers another excellent performance that will take close observation to notice—watch little things like the way he turns into a loving father around his baby son and his natural eye contact communication with Maguire. The simple fact that he's able to deliver schmaltzy lines (like “sometimes when the little guy doesn't know he's the little guy, he can do big things”) without embarrassment deserves kudos.
Since the events portrayed really happened, the film deserves notice. It's unfortunate that Ross' rendition preaches so much about the heart of the underdog without delivering more tension building scenes like Pollard's nearly blind night practice run, but mainstream studios often produce projects that feel like the proverbial elephant built by committee. A sleeker, leaner treatment would have served Seabiscuit's character more. As it stands, young audiences will now equate the race horse with ponderous history lessons about the Great Depression, and the great mainstream will think “for the first time someone cared” about them enough to deliver the story of a champion with the good ol' American spirit that overcomes adversity. It'll play well with the same people that love the Who Moved My Cheese? books that prefer simple and hackneyed messages.
In truth, Seabiscuit remains little more than Universal's latest Studio Tour promotion, designed to reach into the pocketbooks of as many Americans as it can with a film generic enough to appeal to all but the most discriminating audiences.