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With: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Valerie Mahaffey, Sam Bottoms,
Written by: Gary Ross, based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand
Directed by: Gary Ross
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual situations and violent sports-related images
Running Time: 141
Date: 07/22/2003

Seabiscuit (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Matter of Horse

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Part of the fun of the original Rocky was that the movie itself was a lot like its hero: a come-from-behind, scrappy little underdog-who-could. On the other hand, the new Seabiscuit movie has nothing in common with Seabiscuit the horse. Seabiscuit the movie is more like Seabiscuit the horse's mortal enemy, the bigger, stronger, more streamlined, more expensive War Admiral. It's a highly prestigious Hollywood whatsis, hoping for victory by entering the race among the summer dreck.

It's one hell of a story, though. Seabiscuit the horse raced into the hearts of Depression-era fans the same way Muhammad Ali or Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan did in their respective fields of expertise. He was small, gangly, lazy and ate too much and several different owners and trainers simply gave up on him. That was before owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) got ahold of him. They re-trained him and spun his image in the media to make him into a beloved hero, an outcast who turned a second chance into a championship.

Writer/director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) takes the movie version of this story -- based on Laura Hillenbrand's book -- and gives it the blockbuster treatment. He never once takes any chances or does anything untested. Working with producers and Steven Spielberg protégés Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Ross gives Seabiscuit the full Spielberg treatment: lots of gloss and music and shock cuts, and for good measure he throws in not one, but two of the usual Spielbergian father-son rifts.

In one shot, Tom Smith decides to give Seabiscuit a new companion to help calm him down, a goat. Ross cuts to a shot positioned just below the doorway to Seabiscuit's stable, and we can see the joke coming before it happens: the goat gets tossed through the door. It's a very Spielbergian joke, showing the result and not the process. The problem is that, like Frank Capra, only one man can make Steven Spielberg movies.

At the same time, Ross copies the Rocky formula, taking real events and squashing them into the little Rocky molds. Any veteran moviegoer can tell which races Seabiscuit will win and which he will lose according to how far into the movie's running time we are. The first 45 minutes of the film flails all over the place, showing the life stories of our three main characters and cross-cutting between them. The timeline flashes forward so often that we usually have no idea of the year. One title card announces "Six Months Later," but from when?

For his role, Bridges simply apes some of his Tucker moves and Maguire needs scrappier and darker material to avoid fading into the woodwork. In addition, the movie goes out of its way to give Howard a wife (Elizabeth Banks), who has about ten lines to say and even less personality than the horse. All that and more threatened to rip Seabiscuit apart, but I'm not made of stone. This astonishing story got to me more than once. When the little horse crosses the finish line, I got the tingles and felt like applauding.

The movie also benefits from a loose-cannon performance by William H. Macy as track reporter Tick-Tock McGlaughlin, whose rapid firing of puns, innuendos and non-sequiturs -- along with wacky sound effects -- into his microphone would make Adrian Cronauer proud. And though Cooper just won a well-deserved Oscar for his performance in Adaptation, he avoids the Oscar curse and turns in a beautiful follow-up performance. His Tom Smith manages to be subtle and understated in a movie that has little of either; he's a man who does more thinking than talking and Cooper shows it well.

It's awfully tempting and slightly dangerous in a bad summer like this one to recommend a not-great movie simply because it's better than most of the alternatives. But I'm going to do that anyway. Seabiscuit is a fine, exhilarating ride.

DVD Details: Several mini-documentaries, plus a selection of Jeff Bridges' on-set photos and a feature commentary track by Ross and Steven Soderbergh!

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