A CANTER TO THE BOX OFFICE

The movie, with its careful agenda of American rehabilitation, isn't the champion the real Seabiscuit was. But it's a good ride

LIAM LACEY

Seabiscuit

Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Gary Ross
Starring Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper and Jeff Bridges
Classification: PG
Rating: ***

In the late 1930s, a runty, bow-legged horse named Seabiscuit arose out of obscurity and burned up the racetracks of the United States. He was an improbable hero to warm spirits dampened by the gloom of the long economic slump, but the right one for the moment. The combination of a new mass radio audience, re-legalized betting and the horse's irrefutable demonstration that pluck trumps natural advantages, made him an instant Depression folk hero; in 1938, he earned more column inches in the American press than either Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler. Now in 2003, the hopes of the summer movie audiences, bludgeoned by special-effects and limp superhero sequels, are once again pinned to Seabiscuit for uplift and inspiration. Go Biscuit; bring purity and joy to our multiplexes again.

On paper, the pic looks good to go: Seabiscuit, which opens today, features actors that are bywords for authenticity, with Jeff Bridges as the horse's affable owner, Charles Howard, and Chris Cooper as his taciturn trainer, Tom Smith. In the role of the Shakespeare-quoting. Edmonton-born jockey hero, Johnny (Red) Pollard is the dreamy-eyed Tobey Macguire, wearing a carrot-topped hairdo, starved down to Depression-era jockey gauntness. The entire story is based on a captivating book, Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend, that has been a bestseller for the past three years. Hildebrand's richly detailed narrative weaves documentary evidence and oral history so seamlessly, it presents the one possible impediment to the movie: Which, of the innumerable colourful stories, do you choose? Can drama live up to such a history?

Seabiscuit is a good enough movie, in the sense that it's a well-crafted assemblage of pathos and rousing moments, solidly acted and handsomely shot -- but it's far from champion material. There's too much of a sense of proudly cornball overreaching, and beneath the thunder of hoofbeats, it's hard to ignore the grinding gears of an agenda being worked out here. It's directed and co-written by Gary Ross, known for his tales of American innocence and experience, from Big, to Dave to Pleasantville. Ross's films -- and there have only been a handful over the past 20 years -- are cast in a glow of magical realism mixed with a strong dose of liberal politics (he's a former speechwriter for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton). The facts of Seabiscuit's success need no magical adornment: After being nearly discarded as a three-year-old, a year later, he went on to beat Triple Crown-winner War Admiral by a handy four lengths. That leaves Ross to imbue his equine hero with more than horse sense: the embodiment of America rising from its shattered past, binding its wounds and marching forward. All parallels to more recent calamities are entirely intended.

The result is a strange mix of Steven Spielberg and Ken Burns: The movie is provided with a voice-over by PBS historian David McCullough, who provided the narration for Ken Burns's The Civil War series. Not only does McCullough tell us the story of Seabiscuit, he tells the story of Henry Ford inventing the automobile-assembly line, the effects of the stock-market crash and the New Deal. Black and white period photographs add to the documentary weight. while Randy Newman's stately inspirational score pounds home the message that the entire narrative is about much more than a horse.

For the first act of the film, the mixture of footnote and story development is awkward: As the American economy stumbles, so do our three human protagonists (Seabiscuit, played by a dozen different horses, doesn't show up until almost an hour into the film). In separate strands, we meet the three men and learn of the personal losses they suffer: Automobile tycoon Charles Howard loses a son in an accident; horse trainer Tom Smith watches the beloved frontier given over to barbed wire and automobiles; jockey Red Pollard, abandoned by his destitute family, makes his living by being beaten in the boxing ring, and engaging in the near-blood-sport of fairground horse racing.

When the three men eventually converge, drawn fatefully by the unfortunate-looking, badly trained but fiercely spirited horse, America begins its recovery, thanks to Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. At the same time, Seabiscuit becomes the embodiment of the new spirit of the working-class recovery. (If Ross had made one of his comic fantasies, one can imagine Seabiscuit sitting in on Roosevelt's cabinet meetings, offering inspirational tips on getting America back on its feet.) Howard challenges Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones), the owner of the 1937 Triple Crown-winner, War Admiral, to a match race. War Admiral is cast here as the symbol of Eastern privilege and breeding, and his handlers are disdainful of the West Coast upstart, so Howard begins a campaign -- carrying his populist little-guy message across America -- until War Admiral's owners are obliged to bow to popular sentiment, as well as selling cheap infield seats so the poor can enjoy Seabiscuit's brilliance.


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