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"This is truly amazing!  Could it be?  In the
summer of 2003?  A movie that isn't a sequel,
and doesn't have any explosions?  'Impossible,'
I say!  I bet the horse will explode at the end."

Seabiscuit
Review written by: Alex Sandell

Screenwriter/director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Dave) needed to make a tough decision when adapting Laura Hillenbrand's outstanding novel, Seabiscuit, into a screenplay:  does he stay true to the book and create a masterful 3 and a half hour epic, packed with rich characters and historical events, or does he condense it all down into a 90 minute crowd-pleaser?  Unfortunately, Ross was never quite able to make that decision, and instead attempted to do a little of both. 

Ross allots a whole fifteen minutes of screen time (note sarcasm) to show us the rise of a man from bicycle repair person to owner of the most successful Buick dealership in the West, and then back to a man with next to nothing.  He spares about 20 for us to take in the downfall of a prosperous family of well-versed Irish Immigrants, who happen to have a son with a gift for horse riding.  We get five minutes to witness the death of the traditional cowboy way of life through the eyes of America's last genuine cowboy (not counting George W. Bush).  It's too bad Ross forgot to give us at least 10 minutes to care.  After 50 minutes of distanced tedium, the director stops with the Cliff Notes and decides that what he really wants to make is a 90-minute crowd-pleaser.  And for the next 90 minutes, he does just that.

The movie clicks when the fallen owner of the Buick dealership, the son of the Irish Immigrants, and the lost cowboy are brought together by one doozie of a horse.  This is the part of the Seabiscuit story that Ross really wanted to tell.  When the three characters come together, and the horse is introduced, the film becomes focused, and, before long, spellbinding. 

After losing his son in an automobile accident, Buick dealership owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) needs to find a new line of work.  The man is an entrepreneur at heart, but he doesn't know which direction to head in, other than one that leads away from cars.  When Tom Smith, a lost cowboy who lives "in the bushes" catches wealthy entrepreneur Charles Howard's eye, he's selected as the man to find Howard a horse.  When Tom Smith picks Seabiscuit, he knows that, although he's not the biggest or best-looking horse, he's the horse with the most spirit and heart, even though no jockey is able to get on the angry thoroughbred, much less ride him.  But then Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), the temperamental son of Irish Immigrants, is spotted fending off jockeys, just like his future horse.  It takes Smith less than 30 seconds to realize that the oversized jockey and the horse have something in common.  And the trio of broken humans is made whole with the help of their busted down racing horse. 

Ross wisely cast three incredible actors to play his leads.  All three put in amazing performances.  Jeff Bridges recreates his role of Preston Tucker, from the overlooked, Tucker:  The Man and His Dream.  Tobey Maguire is back to his understated pre-Spidey version of Tobey, but you can tell his spider-senses are still tingling, because there are definite signs of life in his performance.  This is one of his best acting jobs, yet.  Chris Cooper didn't miss a beat after his Academy Award winning performance in last year's Adaptation, and he gives another entirely new and enticingly nuanced performance that is again Academy worthy.  But the actor who really steals the show is William H. Macy. 

Macy isn't a major player in the film, but as the alcohol-soaked radio host, Tick Tock McGlaughlin, he nearly steals the movie out from under its leading stars.  His every moment on screen causes the audience to break out in laughter.  His performance is wild-eyed and unforgettable.  Yes, Jack Nicholson was only in about 15 minutes of A Few Good Men, but which actor in that film are you going to tell me you remember the most?  Demi Moore?  It's the same with Macy in Seabiscuit

And what about the horses?  No one, outside of jockeys themselves, has seen anything like the horse racing in this film.  You're taken inside the race.  Not through Computer Generated Crap, but through cameras on cranes, rotating alongside the animals, at 40 miles per hour.  You see jockeys conversing during a couple of races, and then one breaking away from the conversation and shooting out ahead of the pack.  You watch jockeys fighting each other, while riding their horses, during some of the more intense racing sequences in the picture. 

The racing in this movie has plenty of unconventional moments scattered throughout.  By showing B&W snapshots of families gathered around radios, to hear the races, Ross effectively takes us back to a time when an entire country "listening in" to a live event was something new.  But the most unconventional moment is saved for the final race.  I won't reveal the ending, but will say that Ross courageously avoids "crowd-cheering" convention when he softens the film to a near whisper, before fading into the credits.   

So we've got great acting, great directing, and incredible horse racing.  Lame 50 minute intro. aside, this is Rocky times four.  What better underdog story is there than Seabiscuit?  A jockey blind in one eye.  A trainer long out of the game.  A car salesman dealing in horses.  A horse mistreated throughout life, nearly put out to pasture, too small to ever win any significant races, and stuck with a stupid name like "Seabiscuit."  If this ragtag team can shoot to the top, anything's possible, right? 

In 1998 I gave the Gary Ross film, Pleasantville a "9" on a scale of "1-10."  In 2003, I'm giving Seabiscuit a solid "8," on the same scale.  If only for a couple of hours, everybody needs to feel as though they can do anything that they set their minds to.  We all need to feel that we are no better or no worse than anyone else, and that nobody else thinks that they're better than us.  Everyone needs to be given reason to believe that they aren't wrong to keep believing.  And Gary Ross specializes in making people believe.  He is, after-all, the guy that wrote all those heartwarming lines Bill Clinton read so convincingly while out on the campaign trail.

It's no surprise that Seabiscuit isn't as good as the book that it's based on.  If you read the novel first, I'm sure the film would be a disappointment (I read through all 400 pages of the book after getting home from the film).  Seabiscuit stands as a magic movie about a magic time when people cared about helping other people more than they did about handing out tax cuts to the wealthy.  The film is a tale of triumph for those who have spent their entire lives feeling defeated.  It's poetry for the populist.  A poignant reminder that you "don't throw a life away just 'cause it's banged up a little." 

Did I mention that I still believe in a town called Hope?

On a scale of 1-10?

8

What does this rating mean?  Everyone rates things differently.  Your "5" could be my "7," or vice-versa.  Find out what MY rating means by clicking here

Click here for my review of Spy Kids 3-D:  Game Over!

Be back TOMORROW for my review of Tomb Raider 2!

Agree? Disagree? Feeling bored and wanna write a letter that you'll probably never get a response to?  Email me at alex@juicycerebellum.com 

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Pirates of the Caribbean:  The Curse of the Black Pearl

Terminator 3:  Rise of the Machines

Legally Blonde 2:  Red, White & Blonde

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Text (Copyright) 2003 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].