It starts like a Ken Burns miniseries, with warm-toned narration over a montage of black & white photographs. We’re told about how Henry Ford not only invented a car but a new way of manufacturing goods, the assembly line. This meant increased productivity and lower costs, but it also made many artisan workers obsolete. Charles Howard (Jeff “the Dude” Bridges) worked on an assembly line himself, but resourcefulness, hard work and dumb luck led him to rise up to the top, becoming an automobile magnate. On the other side of the rush of progress is Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), the rugged past to Howard’s bright future. A lone ranger born in the wrong century, Smith is partial to quiet evenings by the bonfire, long walks in the bushes and a good dose of horse whispering. Somewhere between these two types is Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a Canadian bookworm with a gift for equitation, despite his being blind in one eye and taller than jockeys usually are.
And then there’s Seabiscuit, a race horse who’s banged up a little, apparently lazy and some kind of crazy, but Smith sees something in the animal’s eyes and he takes up his training. Red is brought in to ride him, because he’s banged up and bitter and full of spirit too, and Howard bankrolls the whole enterprise. “Our horse is too small, our jockey is too big, our trainer is too old, and I’m too old to tell the difference!” No one thinks this is gonna work but, as Lloyd Dobbler taught us, you’ve just described every great success story.
The film, an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s non-fiction best-seller, is set in the early 1930s during the Depression. We’re told that races in general and Seabiscuit’s underdog (underhorse?) victories lifted people’s spirits, but isn’t gambling usually about desperation? Writer-director Gary Ross tries very very hard to transform Seabiscuit into a metaphor for the American Dream, an inspirational little-guy-makes-good, rags-to-riches, “Sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance” Cinderella story, but the film never lifted my spirit; my spirit was left thoroughly unlifted.
The first mistake Ross makes is to take 45 minutes to get the three leads (4 if you count the horse) together. Before that he sets them up on their own. Backstory isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but here there’s either too much or not enough of it. The movie covers a lot of little facts (Howard had a bike shop then he got into cars then his kid died then his wife left him then…), but it doesn’t take the time to let them sink in, so they register as little more than trivia notes. We get to know much about what the characters have been through, but barely anything about who they are and what makes them tick. Bridges, Cooper and Maguire are such talented actors that they manage to breathe some humanity into these one-note characters (Ambitious, Taciturn and Impulsive), but not enough to redeem the film’s other flaws.
One such flaw is that based on true events or not, the film feels like by-the-numbers Hollywood pap. It’s handsomely shot and drenched in Randy Newman’s sentimental score, the dialogue is full of obvious would-be profundities and the actors get to do dramatic little numbers, but the movie never builds momentum. Instead of a cohesive whole, it’s like a string of disconnected Oscar clips. The horse races are moderately exciting, but some of the stylistic choices are bizarre (what’s with the anachronistic use of Moby’s Everloving to score Seabiscuit’s first victory?) and, really, what looks more like a horse race than another horse race? Furthermore, why should we root for this particular horse? So its arrogant fat cat owner can get even richer and fuller of himself? It’s a bit more involving when the focus shifts to the bond between Red and his horse, but why can’t they just go ride in the country, why do they have to win races?
The most fun thing about “Seabiscuit” is William H. Macy’s radio commentator character and all his gimmicks, one-liners and sound effects. Other than that it’s competently made and intermittently interesting but as trite and unsubtle as “The Legend of Bagger Vance” or The Majestic or Ross’ own Pleasantville.