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 not only became a racing legend but also a symbol of hope in 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 and 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, had suffered great hardships in their lives and were 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 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.”
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.
It was only when these four individuals came together through a fortuitous chain of circumstances that each became whole. That is the miracle of this true-life story, as well as the emotional heart of the film.
Certainly, the film 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 rather than the actor. 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 homogenous blandness. Howard’s beautiful, wood-paneled house, with shafts of sunlight piercing the interior-designed gentility, looks lovely but it also looks and feels production-designed. So do many of the scenes in the opening 45-minute back-story. 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’ decision to drop in old black-and-white photos of America during the Great Depression, accompanied by narration from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, nearly stops the film in its tracks. Opening the film in this manner is acceptable and provides an historical context for viewers, but McCullough’s voice and the photographs return again and again, offering history lessons that seem unnecessary, especially as he draws obvious parallels between what is going on in the country and what the film’s characters are experiencing on a personal level. At one juncture, Howard reveals an almost paternal concern for Pollard, who lives at the Howard ranch. The screen cuts to black-and-white photos of Americans who are back to work, thanks to President Roosevelt’s policies. “For the first time in a long time, someone cared,” McCullough intones. Such comparisons are completely unnecessary and heavy-handed, to boot. Likewise, Thomas Newman’s score is not always as subtle as it might have been.
Luckily, the film has enough real heart and honest emotion to sustain it. Ross also does a nice job of generating tension. One particularly nerve-wracking moment finds Red and “the Biscuit” racing around the track in the middle of the night, without the benefit of any lights. The fact that Pollard is scared makes the viewer all that much more apprehensive.
An engaging and emotionally satisfying film despite its shortcomings, Seabiscuit benefits from the fact that it really happened — it’s a fairy tale come true in many ways, and not just for this horse and these three men. The whole country seemed to embrace Seabiscuit as its hero and mascot. Like the millions of Americans who endured the Depression, he was a common-man-of-a-horse, beaten down and beaten up, but never beaten.