Seabiscuit (2003) ***
Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Gary Ross,
America loves heroes. The world loves heroes. What is meant by that word is not easy to define. There's variety in its use and application. Joe Blow, the goalie of the football team in North Paloosa (pop. 805) can become the town's hero overnight. Or the fireman who rescued a baby from a burning home. The Tour de France cyclists are all heroes. Lance Armstrong is a superhero. So is Tyler Hamilton of Massacussetts who came in fourth, with, from the start, a cracked collarbone! So is the dauntless German, Jan Ullrich. So was Spartacus.
There is a huge concentration of heroes in wars. American soldiers killed in an exploding vehicle in Iraq, or British troops attacked by guerilla fighters in Basra also qualify as heroes. Not to mention that W.W.I. hillbilly Tennessean and future Sgt.-- Alvin York. the sharpshooter whose citation for the Medal of Honor reads in part: " Corporal, U.S. Army; Place and date: Near Chatel-Chehery, France, 8 October 1918. After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and 3 other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machinegun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machinegun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns."
Or, in WWII, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe who, at the killing grounds of Bastogne, received an offer of surrender to a German delegation and refused it with the wonderful reply "Aw, nuts."
My own WWII favorites were the young U.S. airmen of the 8th Army Air Force. See the 45-minute documentary "The Memphis Belle: A story of a Flying Fortress" made by William Wyler in 1944 (no the "fictional" movie of 1990) and if you don't choke up there's something wrong with you.
"Seabiscuit" is a biopic about an American legend and about heroes: the horse, the jockey, the trainer, perhaps even the owner. They all had faith in Seabiscuit. There's also a hero who does not appear on the screen: Laura Hillenbrand who wrote about Seabiscuit, culminating with the eponymous best-selling book. Readers of this review are urged to read her article "A Sudden Illness" (about her struggles with Chronic Fatigue Symptom) in The New Yorker for July 7, 2003.
Heroism encourages much description and commentary in the media. There is such a publicity blitz for the movie that getting into details of the story would only take up space here. It is a good blitz, it teaches a great deal. Almost exactly three months before the movie's premiere there was released in the TV series "American Experience" the one-hour documentary "Seabiscuit" on PBS. Directed by Steven Ives, written by Michelle Ferrari, and deserving ****.
I have spent most of a crammed week with those films, a huge number of Internet items about them, about racing, etc. etc., the book by Ms.Hillenbrand, a long, first-rate Charlie Rose interview of Ross, Cooper, Bridges and jockey Stevens. It was all time well used.
The feature movie is, at long last, a solid, serious antidote to the summer of 2003 film-fare. No body count. No extra-terrestrials. No dumb comedy. No infantilism. Yes, it is a feel-good movie but then the story of Seabiscuit was a feel-good tale. A horse of noble lineage but proletarian looks and formation, an unpromising quadruped that would have lived in oblivion had it not been for a tiny group of men, Seabiscuit captured the imagination of an entire country. It may sound corny to say that it brought a ray of sunshine to the darkness of the Great Depression, but that's a fact. That was during a decade of despair for millions. The movie makes the point first via an exposition of the Depression narrated by David McCullough. It is too long for parts of the public but no doubt necessary for today's generation which is woefully ignorant of the past, of history in any shape or form.
We proceed in ellipses that may or may not be too ambitious, or even arty, yet they do serve the purpose of welcome paeans for Franklin Delano Roosevelt - the President, you know. Then the main cast of characters is developed : Tobey Maguire (jockey Red Pollard), Jeff Bridges (millionaire owner Charles Howard), Chris Cooper (trainer Tom "Silent" Smith), Elizabeth Banks (Marcela, the second Mrs. Howard), Gary Stevens (jockey George Woolf), William H. Macy (radio journalist Tick-Tock McGlaughlin.)
I am not sure that "all the world loves a lover." But certainly, it loves a hero and a winner, especially if the latter was an underdog, or in this case an underhorse. Especially one that uplifts the "little people" who identify with it and even more so in the dreadful atmosphere of the 1930s. Seabiscuit more or less parallels the gradual uplift of the New Deal in a country where horse races were the number One sport and was (to quote the narration) a betting nation six days a week. Cinephiles may remember that many Hollywood films depicted the Prohibition (1920-1933), speakeasies, the rise of organized crime and such. When Prohibition ended, while gangsterism kept up in movies, illegal betting became a favorite no-no depicted in film after film.
"Seabiscuit" is very well acted by all concerned, including the dozens of horses that played Seabiscuit, Tobey Maguire (who was never astride the horse when racing), Chris Cooper (whose star is steadily ascending), the ever talented Jeff Bridges (in his near-60th movie,) the original and amusing William H. Macy as the funny Tick-Tock McGlaughlin.
Production values and trick cinematography are tops. Some liberties were taken in the story, some vaguenesses were allowed. The passage of Red from the educated son of wealthy parents ruined by the Depression to a penniless rider who boxed to make ends meet. There is some murkiness in the rise of Howard from employee to clientless bicycle dealer/repairman. He dismantles a (Stanley Steamer?) car, puts it back together fixed and then pronto is very rich as a car dealer. Confusing.
Still, writer-director Gary Ross does very well in his second film, the first one being the fine fantasy "Pleasantville" in which Macy and Maguire were players. It is a moving (no pun meant) picture, has something for everyone and, it is reported, brings tears to a number of eyes.