Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit

movie poster, SeabiscuitI have to tell you that I cried at all the wrong places in this movie. Charles Howard’s son dies. Did I cry? No. Charles gives Red Pollard a financial loan, signifying his trust in someone other people consider unstable and washed-up. Did I cry? Nyet. Red Pollard listens from his hospital bed while one of his closest friends rides his horse to victory. Tears from this reviewer? Non. At all these points, sniffs were audible in the theatre all around me. Don’t get me wrong — they were poignant scenes, beautifully acted. I just don’t cry about things like that.

But I teared up every time I saw the horse(s) who play Seabiscuit take the track. It’s beautiful! The way horses run when they’re racing… there’s an emotion in it that isn’t human, but that I find heart-rending all the same. In this, I am directly opposed to David Edelstein, who in his review grinches about the fact that several anonymous horses play the character of “Biscuit.” Whatever. It worked for me.

I suppose, though, that I’m starting this film review from the wrong end. Story? you ask. Actors? Music?

The story is what makes this, a film about horse-racing, something you’d expect to see reviewed in GMR. Based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, it’s a story about a horse and several men who have fallen out of the system, only to fight their way back, to win, to “make it.” Throughout the movie, interwoven with the action, there is actual film footage from the Great Depression, and it’s clear that we’re supposed to see how a scrawny, injured horse who just has to get in there and run his heart out captured the imagination of a staggering, demoralized nation. Seabiscuit was a folk hero, suggests this movie (and the book), as were his jockey Red Pollard, his trainer Tom Smith, and his owner Charles Howard.

Interestingly enough, this is true. I went to see the movie with a friend, and she talked with her eighty-five-year-old father about it afterward. He told her that yes, he remembers Seabiscuit. He remembers everyone talking about the little horse who wouldn’t quit. He remembers Seabiscuit’s story being the center of people’s conversation, and how they all gathered around the radio to listen to his races. And how his success became part of their own hopes to “make it.”

The acting in Seabiscuit is good. The word “superb” doesn’t come to mind, simply because most of the actors don’t stand out. But I think, really, that that’s a good thing. The story shines here, not the individual performances. I was a little surprised initially at Tobey Maguire’s performance as Red Pollard, who was allegedly a hard-drinking, womanizing sort of fellow. Maguire plays Pollard as a sweet — if hot-headed — reader of Victorian hero stories and poetry. Sure, he drinks, but he’s never really mean. He’s nice.

In fact, everyone here is nice. Those of us who went to see the movie together commented about it afterward. Accustomed as we are to Hollywood’s cack-handed attempts at “gritty” real life characters, we kept expecting “complexity” that never came. Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges with a sort of easy largesse of style that makes you think, “This man could play a king, and pull it off!”), the millionaire who loses his son in a tragic accident, and his wife to divorce shortly thereafter, is a nice guy. He’s a visionary, he’s ambitious, but he doesn’t trample his employees or lash out at his wife. And even though she divorces him, she’s not made out to be his betrayer, just a grieving woman who can’t bear to be married to the father of her lost son anymore. We sympathize with both of them.

Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper, whose cowboy squint is worth its weight in gold), the old out-of-work cowboy who becomes Biscuit’s trainer, is crusty and eccentric, but he’s really a nice guy, after all. William H. Macy is a loveable, laughable Tick Tock McLaughlin, the good ol’ radio announcer who begins by doubting Biscuit and ends up a staunch, breathless fan, leading millions of radio listeners to cheer the little horse’s wins.

After all this, when Elizabeth Banks steps onstage in her red, red lipstick as the woman who will become Charles Howard’s second wife, Marciela, we in the theatre were ready. “Here she is,” we turned to one another and murmured. “The siren who wants him for his money.” Nope. She’s nice, too. She loves Charles, loves Biscuit, and encourages Red to forget about that starving jockey tradition and eat his vegetables.

Do I sound cynical? I’m not, actually. It was, in fact, a pleasure to watch an entire film about nice, generous people. Even the bad guy, the millionaire who owns Biscuit’s only rival (an ominous, hugely gorgeous black horse that made my eyes fill up yet again) is the sort of villian you love to hate. He’s paunchy, he squints — but with the wealthy tycoon squint, not the cowboy-who’s-gazed-out-at-a-thousand-sunsets squint — and he’s comfortably forgettable. I don’t remember his name. I was going to look it up for this review, but it’s not really necessary to know who he is.

There is one exception to all the niceness, however. And that’s Gary Stevens in the role of George “The Iceman” Woolfe. Yes, what you’ve heard is true. Stevens is an actual Hall of Fame jockey. He’s just published an autobiography entitled The Perfect Ride. This is his acting debut. And merciful heavens above, the man is lovely to behold! Blue, blue eyes, chiselled features, perfect build. If he were six foot five, he couldn’t be any more handsome than he is.

But I’m not just a sucker for a pretty face. George Woolfe is one of Red Pollard’s closest friends, and when Red ends up in the hospital and can’t ride Biscuit, it’s Woolfe he turns to. Gary Stevens plays Woolfe as the most outstanding character in the film. He’s a confident, bordering on arrogant, jockey who has the champion’s drive to win. He’s also a best friend who never tries to steal your girl — or horse, in this case — while you’re laid up. I got weepy (again) when I watched Woolfe train on Biscuit, learning what motivates this horse, using all of that skill to help Biscuit win his race against his nemesis. And then, even while the crowds are cheering for handsome, photogenic “Ice Man,” he gladly gives Biscuit back to his real jockey, Red.

The music for the film, by Randy Newman, is like most of the acting: good but not superb. It’s perfectly suited to a “Yay, America!” movie. It has hints of Aaron Copland, fragments of Appalachian folk tunes. It’s big, moving, and comfortable. It’s not memorable in and of itself. I don’t want to run out and buy the soundtrack. But it enhances the story and the setting the way a good valet makes his employer shine.

Final word? Seabiscuit is a really nice movie. And that’s not a bad thing.

(Universal Studios, 2003)


Grey Walker

Grey Walker is a Narrative American (with thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin for coining that term). Although she makes money as a librarian, she makes her life as a reader and writer of stories and reviews of stories. She has a growing interest in the interstitial arts. The album she listens to most often is Morning Walk by Metamora. The book she re-reads most often (and she never owns a book unless she intends to read it more than once) is The Smith of Wootton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien.

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