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SEABISCUIT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens, William H. Macy
Director:  Gary Ross
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  141 Minutes
Release Date:  December 16, 2003

“Kinda small, isn’t he?”

“He’s gonna look a lot smaller in a second.”

Film ****

America not only loves underdogs, it loves movies about them, which is why I believe the sports film remains such a crowd pleasing genre.  But when a picture really expands the canvas of a little-guy-makes-good story, and the subject itself is a true life one, it’s something really special.

Seabiscuit is just such a tale.  Based on the Depression-era story of one unlikely horse and three unlikely men, this is the kind of film you’d naturally be predisposed to disbelieve.  As much as my gut told me at least one key point had to have been invented for screen drama, I found myself researching the original articles by author Laura Hillenbrand.  Imagine my surprise to learn that the movie did NOT cheat on any of the major historical points.  It was kind of like an aftershock of elation after the initial experience of seeing the picture.

Writer/director Gary Ross saw the article-turned-book by Hillenbrand as a great slice of Americana.  Before the book and movie came out, Seabiscuit wasn’t a name on many people’s tongues, but during his day, he was as big a celebrity as they came.  In fact, 1938 saw more print per column inch about Seabiscuit than any other public figure…Franklin D. Roosevelt was second and Hitler was third.  Even movie stars frequently made their way to the track to cheer on this unusual champion.

But Ross also sees the story as one of four individuals, each broken in his own way, coming together to do something extraordinary.  Charles Howard (Bridges) was a bicycle man who figured out a way to make a more powerful car and a fortune for himself in the meantime.  But a personal tragedy and the great crash of 1929 would steer his life in a different direction.  Tom Smith (Cooper) was a real cowboy who saw his way of life being lost to cars, roads and fences.  He was the kind of guy others would snicker at because he’d take the time to nurse a horse back to health when anyone else would have put it down.  Red Pollard (Maguire) had a gift for handling horses, and so he was abandoned to the tracks by his family at a young age when the Depression hit.  Poor and unsuccessful, he took to hard menial jobs and fighting to try and stay alive.  He had the drive to be a jockey but not the success.

The fourth individual was, of course, Seabiscuit, a horse bred to be a champion but whose small stature and awkward gait, plus a propensity for doing nothing more than eating and sleeping made him a reject.  He lost most of his early races and was eventually delegated to a training horse, meaning he would run against REAL race horses just so he could lose and build the other horse’s confidence.  By age three, he was a bitter and hard to handle animal.

But when Howard turned his attention to horses, he found himself drawn to the spirit of Seabiscuit.  Smith, who became his trainer, saw something in him that others would have discarded.  And Pollard, himself bitter and broken, had no fear of the wild stallion, and became his jockey.

What followed was the stuff of legends as the little horse no one believed in and the three unlikely men behind him became huge successes.  Seabiscuit turned out not only to be a surprisingly fast horse and a big money winner, but the kind of icon that captured the imagination of a nation desperately searching for something to remind them of the greatness within themselves.  The small, awkward horse would even challenge the country’s most prized racing thoroughbred one on one.  It was broadcast by NBC to (at the time) the largest radio audience in history.  Businesses closed early that day so employees could hear the race.  It’s been said even President Roosevelt tuned in.

A story like that would have been enough for any movie, but the greatest challenge of Seabiscuit and his human compatriots was still to come.  Red Pollard would shatter his leg in a horrific accident, to be told he would never ride again.  Seabiscuit himself went lame in a race, tearing a ligament and leading the horse doctor to suggest the only thing to do would be to put him down.  Horses don’t come back from those kinds of injuries, and even if Seabiscuit could, his jockey would never be able to take his place astride him again.  But maybe…just maybe…there was one more miracle left…

It’s interesting to compare this movie to the likes of The Rookie.  Both were based on incredible true stories in sports; yet the latter managed to still succumb to all the weight of the sports film clichés, so much so that even the truth in the tale couldn’t rise above it.  Seabiscuit, however, takes an amazing story and tells it in the right way.  This is more than the story of a nothing horse making good and one big race scene after another.  No, this film is poetic and thoughtful, contemplative and lyrical.  There are four underdog stories at play here; four separate souls who found it in one another to achieve greatness.  That’s the kind of story that transcends every possible genre pratfall.

All cast members are excellent, but I really must single out Chris Cooper.  I’ve been a fan of his ever since seeing him in October Sky, and he continues to prove he’s one of the greatest character actors working in movies today.  He never repeats himself, and if you think of the crudely brass and charming orchid grower he won an Oscar for playing in Adaptation, you’ll really be surprised at the careworn, beaten down but inwardly strong old cowboy he realizes here.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see another Academy Award nomination in his future.

But credit the brilliant Gary Ross, who time and time again has shown a knack for sifting through the spectacle and finding the human spirit in his projects.  Seabiscuit is not only a technical triumph (the horse racing sequences are the most thrilling since Charlton Heston raced his chariot in Ben-Hur), but he never favors the event over the individual.  The action will get your heart pounding, but the drama is what will keep it warm for the duration.

This picture is a triumph in every way imaginable and one of the best movies of the year.   Seabiscuit once reminded a nation that she could be bent but never broken.  Now, decades later, the movie bearing his name reminds us of that all over again.

Video ****

The cinematography in this film is superb, from the beautifully photographed locations to the heart-pounding action sequences, and this anamorphic transfer from Universal services it all the way.  Colors are plentiful and frequently fast-moving, but nothing on this disc loses definition or bleeds.  Images are sharp and clear throughout, and the level of detail is strong and clear in both bright and darker scenes.  No grain or compression are evident to mar the effect.  One piece of advice, though…this is definitely NOT the kind of film you want to see in the butchered pan & scan version.

Audio ****

If you want to feel what a jockey feels, listen up:  this 5.1 soundtrack puts you so deep in the action you may think you feel the galloping hooves beneath you.  Though dialogue is clean and clear and the musical score a wonderful touch, it’s really the horse racing sequences that make this a top notch audio entry.  With the subwoofer pounding out the vibrations and both front and rear stages opening up to give you the full effect, you couldn’t ask for a better sonic complement to this kind of movie.

Features ****

I can’t believe Universal didn’t label this disc a Collector’s Edition; it certainly has the extras package to merit it.  It starts with a solid, informative and enjoyable commentary track with writer/director Gary Ross, who talks about the movie from a creator’s point of view, and fellow acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who chats about the movie from an admirer’s point of view.

There are also several featurettes beginning with “Bringing the Legend to Life”, which talks with Ross and his cast members, as well as author Laura Hillenbrand, and give you a good behind-the-scenes look.  “Racing Through History” shows archival footage of the legendary horse while giving a modern historical perspective to his life and times.  “Anatomy of a Movie Moment” has Ross showing you step-by-step how a sequence goes from the printed page to the silver screen.  Finally, there is a photo gallery of some of Jeff Bridges’ pics from the set, and some production notes.  The trailer, which was a good one, is sadly missing.

Summary:

Seabiscuit manages to take an incredible true story and package it like a great American sports movie, while both utilizing and breaking beyond the standard formula.  This is one of the year’s best films, and a top notch DVD presentation to boot.