It's the Depression, and everyone needs to hold onto a dream to get them through the bad times. Car maker Charles Howard is no different, he who is trying to rebuild his life after the tragic death of his only child and the resulting end of his first marriage. With second wife Marcela at his side, Charles wants to get into horse racing and ends up with a team of underdogs who are also chasing their own dream. The first is trainer Tom Smith, who has a natural instinct to spot the capabilities of horses. The second is the horse Tom chooses for Charles, Seabiscuit, an unconventional choice as despite his pedigreed lineage, Seabiscuit is small at fifteen and a half hands tall with a slight limp. But Tom can see something in Seabiscuit's nature to make him a winner, if only Seabiscuit can be retrained from his inbred losing ways. And third is the jockey they decide to hire, Johnny "Red" Pollard, so nicknamed because of his hair color. Like Tom, Red has always shown a natural way with ... Written by
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[speaking to the newsmen after the win at Santa Anita]
Well, I just think this horse has a lot of heart. He may have been down, but he wasn't out. He may have lost a few, but he didn't let it get to him. I think I learned a lick or two from this little guy. Oh, and by the way, he doesn't know he's little. He thinks he's the biggest horse out there.
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It's fitting that a film about underdogs giving it all they've got has been released among the standard summer action fare. No other movie this summer has capitalized upon the David vs. Goliath theme so thoroughly and effectively as `Seabiscuit' has.
The story of `Seabiscuit' is actually the tale of four long shots: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a wealthy self-made man and natural salesmen who's suffered both personal and financial loss through the Depression, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), an aging horse trainer unsure of his place in the world with the ending of the frontier, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a short-tempered jockey with various handicaps against him, and Seabiscuit, an undersized mustang whose been mistreated his whole life.
It's the Depression, and times are hard on everyone. The assembly line philosophy of business is starting to squelch independent spirit and people are looking for anything to help escape the dreary day-to-day of life. During this maelstrom of hopelessness, horse racing quickly gathers favoritism among those wishing to witness a spectacle in otherwise bleak times. It's under these circumstances that the film's four main parties come together. Howard, seeking a new business venture in horse racing, hires Smith as his horse trainer and Pollard as his jockey, and upon Smith's insistence, purchases the ill-tempered Seabiscuit.
It's not long before Seabiscuit becomes the `little horse who could,' gaining favor among the sporting fans on the West Coast. But despite the popularity the mustang and his team gains, they are seen as just a cheap novelty by the East Coast horse racing elite, led by Samuel Riddle, owner of the 1937 Triple Crown Winner War Admiral. This mushrooms into a media circus as Howard tries to gain public favor in order to force Riddle to put his money where his mouth is.
The story should have felt cliched and by-the-numbers, but a funny thing happened: the film makers took a nearly forgotten moment in time and managed to invest it with immediacy and suspense. The near mythic meeting of Seabiscuit and War Admiral on November 1, 1938 at Pimlico is an extension of the movie's overall theme; Seabiscuit, the representative of underdog hopes and pioneering dreams, and War Admiral, the recipient of champion breeding and training, a product of assembly line thinking.
Bridges and Maguire give spirited performances, with their characters forming a father and son bond that both men desperately needed. Cooper, who won this year's Best Supporter Actor Oscar, can give this kind of performance in his sleep, bringing a quiet, stoic depth to the Smith character. The supporting cast is top drawer as well, especially William H. Macy as `Tick Tock' McGlaughlin, the initially skeptical radio sports commentor who becomes a full blown Seabiscuit supporter.
Director Gary Ross captures the time period marvelously, with broken human beings slowly recapturing their dignity and pride against a landscape of barren ruin. The conflicts are fought not on traditional battlefields, but atop magnificent beasts along a circular track, and Ross wisely utilizes this metaphor to full effect.
Many film goers this season will most certainly pass on `Seabiscuit,' choosing instead to see standard fare like `American Wedding' and `Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.' Others will undoubtedly avoid it because it looks to artsy to be entertaining. For whatever reason, it will be a shame that this film will not do well financially; the horse race scenes are some of the most intense I've ever seen, and the animals are pure poetry in motion.
9 out of 10 stars. A nearly flawless motion picture.
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