Bucking the Odds

Seabiscuit is a different breed of summer "ride" movie.

Tobey Maguire plays a jockey whose life is - transformed when he hooks up with Seabiscuit.
Tobey Maguire plays a jockey whose life is transformed when he hooks up with Seabiscuit.

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted that "There are no second acts in American lives." But a horse named Seabiscuit and the three disparate men who shared his success would surely disagree.

Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit recounts the true story of an unprepossessing, knobby-kneed horse who became not only a racing legend but a symbol of hope and inspiration to a nation suffering through the darkest days of the Great Depression. That the film is good rather than great proves a disappointment, but just finding a good film these days is rare -- especially a big studio picture.

Screenwriter-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) deviates little from Hillenbrand's eminently readable book, which was published to great acclaim in 2001. The title "character" doesn't appear until 45 minutes into the film; instead, we meet the three men who, like Seabiscuit himself, have suffered great hardships in their lives and are in desperate need of healing: owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire). Intercutting between the three, Ross produces a kind of extended prologue, in which critical episodes in each character's life are revealed, providing crucial psychological insight into each man.

The enterprising Howard left New York for San Francisco in 1903 with 21 cents in his pocket. He arrived just as the horseless carriage was being introduced and soon he had made millions in the automobile business; a few years later, his world fell apart, when his young son died and his marriage collapsed.

Smith was a rugged, taciturn individualist, a cowboy whose way of life had all but disappeared by the second decade of the 20th century. He had worked as a horse trainer and was even rumored to be a "horse whisperer."

Johnny Pollard was born into a loving, middle-class Irish American family, but when his father lost everything in a flood, the boy was cut loose and told to make his own way in the world. He wanted to be a jockey, but his career didn't take off until he hooked up with Howard, Smith, and a rambunctious thoroughbred named Seabiscuit, whose own hardscrabble life made him a perfect fit with the three men.

Only when these four individuals came together through a fortuitous chain of circumstances did each of them become whole. That is the miracle of this true-life story, as well as the emotional heart of the film.

Seabiscuit has a lot going for it -- starting with Maguire, who is particularly good as the emotionally wounded jockey. Bridges, one of America's most gifted actors, is surprisingly one-dimensional, a fault perhaps of the screenplay's structure. William H. Macy is a hoot in a supporting role as radio sports commentator "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin, while real-life jockey Gary Stevens makes his acting debut as real-life 1930s jockey George Woolf.

Like so many mass-appeal studio pictures, Seabiscuit suffers from a kind of glossy veneer and homogeneous blandness. Howard's beautiful, wood-paneled house, shot with shafts of sunlight piercing the interior-designer gentility, looks lovely, but it also looks and feels production-designed. So do many of the scenes in the 45-minute backstory that opens the film. And while the constant jumping back and forth among the four stories in this section is handled smoothly and never appears choppy, it also never feels organic or natural.

Ross's decision to drop in old black-and-white photos of America during the Great Depression, narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, nearly stops the film in its tracks. Opening the film this way does provide a historical context for viewers, but McCullough's voice and the black-and-white photos return again and again, offering history lessons that seem unnecessary, especially as McCullough draws obvious parallels between what is going on in the country and what the film's characters are experiencing on a personal level. Nor is Thomas Newman's score always as subtle as it might have been.

Luckily, the film is engaging and emotionally satisfying; despite its shortcomings, it has enough real heart and honest emotion to sustain it. Representing the millions of Americans who endured the Depression, Seabiscuit was a regular guy of a horse, beaten down and beaten up, but never beaten.

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