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"Seabiscuit" Belongs in Winner's Circle

(This story was published in 2003).

By: Todd Heustess

“You don’t throw a whole life away just ‘cause it’s banged up a little.”

"Seabiscuit," which opens nationwide today, is not only a stirring and inspiring underdog story. It's also a story of redemption, perseverance, and courage and how one undersized, temperamental horse electrified a nation and changed the lives of three broken men.

The film, which is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, puts the audience in the races, capturing for the first time on film the exhilarating excitement of the sport of horse racing. My only criticism of the movie is that there’s too much plot, too much going on for viewers unfamiliar with the story (as I was) and therefore the first 45-50 minutes left me a little confused and unsure of where the story was going. However, once Seabiscuit enters the movie, the film takes off and becomes one of the most satisfying movie-going experiences of the summer.

"Seabiscuit" is not just a story about one horse overcoming incredible odds and inspiring a nation that was recovering from the Great Depression; it is also a story of personal salvation for three very different men whose lives become connected through Seabiscuit. Johnny “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is an oversized, often injured jockey who was abandoned by his parents during the Depression and endured the hard knocks of underground prize-fighting early his career as a means of survival. The effects of the fighting left him blind in one eye, further diminishing his hopes of becoming a world-class jockey. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a cowboy who literally is at home on the range and uncomfortable in the modern world, possesses an almost mystical understanding of horses. And finally there is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) a one-time bicycle shop owner who becomes a self-made millionaire in the automotive industry, only to see his life shattered by personal tragedies. These three men are eventually brought together by Seabiscuit, and through this horse who was brimming with racing talent but didn’t posses the temperament for it, they each achieve a measure of personal redemption.

In "Seabiscuit" you have four stories of overcoming impossible odds, an embarrassment of cinematic riches to say the least. These are four great stories, and it probably would have made sense to tell the story from one point of view, but director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Dave") gives each of the characters equal focus, which does occasionally impact the coherence of the story. And while it does take some time to sort things out, and there is no need for the random, if not annoying, action-interrupting narration after the first hour, these minor criticisms were forgotten by the end of the movie.

Seabiscuit was one of the first sporting pop-culture icons, a Rocky with four-legs if you would. Horse racing was tremendously popular in the 1930s and Seabiscuit was a tremendously popular underdog, capturing the imagination of millions as he overcame a huge size disadvantage to beat incredible odds. I kept thinking of Martina Hingis or John McEnroe while watching Seabiscuit – two undersized, scrappy athletes who were able to succeed (for awhile at least) against much larger and powerful opponents in their sport.

And it is in these races that the film achieves a poetic intensity. "Seabiscuit" is the first horseracing movie that gives the audience some understanding of how exciting and beautiful the sport can be. Many of races are shot from the perspective of a jockey, putting us right smack in the race itself, and the effect is energizing and spine tingling, easily eclipsing the “excitement” of all the formulaic car chases in just about every movie this summer.

As the movie progresses, both Seabiscuit and Red are seriously injured, giving them further odds to overcome. A rival jockey of Red’s, George Woolf (played by real-life jockey Gary Stevens) enters the scene, becoming an important player in what transpires after Seabiscuit and Red are injured. As Seabiscuit gallops towards its rousing conclusion, you may feel like you’ve seen this story before (and you have) but that does not detract from one of the most satisfying movies of the summer. "Seabiscuit" is not only a great sports movie, but its a breath of fresh movie air in a summer filled with stale, disappointing sequels.