July, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Gary Ross

Starring:Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Royce D. Applegate, and William H. Macy

At last! After enduring almost two months of bloated, mind-numbing, violent action pictures, audiences can now enjoy the perfect summer movie; an accessible storyline, thrillingly credible action, a knowingly sentimental script, (with a perfectly modulated touch of nostalgia) and best of all, a pair of quiet, remarkable performances that demonstrate once again how a good actor can appreciably enhance a screenwriter's words.

Writer/director Gary Ross, (whose previous efforts involve an apparent penchant for one-word titles--Big, Dave, Lassie, Pleasantville) has adapted this film from the best seller of the same name chronicling the improbable circumstances that surrounded the success of the most famous racehorse of the 1930's and early '40's. Ross combines a flair for a cleverly turned phrase with an inclination towards the Capra-esque in his screenplays, but his drift into easy sentimentality is rescued here by Beau Bridges and Chris Cooper, two/thirds of the unlikely trio that took a washed-up thoroughbred and turned it into a depression-era version of the comeback-kid.

The basic story is well-known and straightforward enough; wealthy businessman Charles Howard, (Jeff Bridges) seeking diversion from a failed marriage and family tragedy, becomes interested in horse racing; he recruits a misfit, unorthodox trainer to find and manage a winner. The trainer, in turn, chooses an oversized, feisty jockey whose eyesight isn't all it ought to be. These three take an undersized horse acquired at a bargain-basement price and turn him into a national racing icon who demolishes the competition, suffers a crippling accident yet returns to race again….

Under Ross' cagey direction, the film introduces its human heroes well before the equestrian one, allowing the audience to have a peek into the motivations of three men whose lives would certainly not have intersected had it not been for a serendipitous connection with the sport of kings. The script meanders through its introduction of these disparate souls, interspersing their backgrounds with vintage film clips of life in America in the decades leading up to Seabiscuit's fame. (Historian David McCullogh's mellifluous voice-over lends these scenes a rich authenticity.)

 In Charles Howard, Jeff Bridges finds the opportunity to effectively tone down the Babbitt-like salesman's bluster he unsuccessfully brought to the screen in Tucker, turning his caricature in that film into the more nuanced portrait presented here. Bridge's tycoon displays a warmth and integrity born of personally experienced loss, but seamlessly mixed with the huckerism Howard had to utilize in order to accomplish the marketing feat that became Seabiscuit's legacy. 

As trainer Tom Swift, Chris Cooper creates a remarkably complex portrait of an essentially simple man. A loner far more comfortable with four legged creatures than bipeds, Cooper inhabits his Swift, an admirable odd-duck lucky enough to find in one horse, its owner and jockey the perfect compliments to his own genius and deficiencies. It requires real skill to present the helper as hero; Tom Courtney spent a whole film doing it in The Dresser while Ian Holm's track coach in Chariots of Fire did it to perfection in a single scene, (by punching out the crown of his hat to signal his participation in a perfect marriage of instruction and performance). Swift's lines are deceptively simple, even naive-but Cooper uses his eyes, facial expressions and the modulation of his delivery to provide an endearing portrait of a man unhappy in common social settings but possessing a stubborn commitment to his craft and confidence in his own hard-won skills and that make it possible for him to achieve what others only dream of. 

If Tobey McGuire's jockey, Red Pollard, emerges as the least interesting of these three, it's not because his story is any less colorful--I suspect a different actor, whose skills matched those of Bridges and Cooper, could have made this very good movie a really great one--but he's merely competent in a role that could have produced a real trifecta. As Tick Tock McLaughlin, William H. Macy presents yet another of his inspired lunatics, while Elizabeth Banks, as Howard's second wife Marcella, smiles a lot in a role that asks for very little and barely accomplishes that much. (The horses involved, it must be said, look uniformly magnificent--and deliver the occasional snort and whinny right on cue.)

The racing scenes vary rather widely in quality; Ross tries too often to bring the audience right onto a horse's back, an artificial contrivance at odds with the much better long shots which show the actual races unfolding. He more than compensates for this inadequacy however, providing luscious shots of race tracks, paddocks, tack rooms and stables which show off the sport to great effect and enhancing the period feel of his film with a remarkable display of period costumes and paraphernalia that perfectly compliment the vintage look of the newsreel footage of the era. 

Here's a frankly heart-warming film that's also smart about the often conflicting motivations of its characters. You won't feel foolish about your reaction to it; in contrast to the overt sermonizing of Whale Rider, the preaching here is both subtle and subversive--and a lot more fun.   




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