A Nags-to-Riches Story
Who would have thought a movie about a racehorse of all things could be so entertaining, but that is definitely the case with the 2003 movie "Seabiscuit" starring Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper and Jeff Bridges. What is particularly strange is when you scrape away all the sub plots and get down to the nitty gritty of the movie "Seabiscuit" is nothing more than your typical sports underdog story, or should that be under horse story, which to be honest has been done to death. But it is in fact all the subplots and in particular the honest and simple manner in which "Seabiscuit" has been produced that makes it stand out from all the others in this crowded genre.
Based upon the true story and book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, "Seabiscuit" tells the underdog story of Seabiscuit, a racehorse who was deemed too small and uncooperative, his jockey who was to tall, his trainer whose unusual methods were scorned by his peers and his owner an entrepreneur who is struggling with life after the death of his son and the failure of his marriage. But despite the odds being stacked against them, they managed to start winning races which inspired the American nation which had been severely knocked due to the great depression of the 1930's.
As already mentioned the underlying storyline to "Seabiscuit" is your classic sporting underdog scenario and as with all these movies we get all the standard scenes and set ups which make up the story. From the back history which makes us sympathise and want to cheer on the under dog through to the predictable disasters which may just stop the horse in its tracks, right through to the predictable climatic sequence. Thankfully they stopped short of giving us the overly choreographed training session as per the "Rocky" movies, I can't imagine anything worse than watching a horse do press ups to some terrible rock track, only kidding.
But whilst the underlying story is nothing more than the stock underdog story, it is the stories revolving around the three men which really give "Seabiscuit" some brilliant depth. First of which is the story of Charles Howard, the horses owner who having made his fortune in the car industry and have survived the Wall Street crash is now struggling to find anything worth living for after the death of his son and the failure of his first marriage. Secondly you have the story of Tom Smith who seems to have lost his spirit as the world moves and even the animals he loves become just another commodity to many. Finally you have the story of Red Pollard the jockey, who being too tall has struggled to make his way in the business and has a chip on his shoulder. These three stories all share one thing in common and that they are all about men who are lost and through there relationships with Seabiscuit discover that life is worth living. What is particularly nice about the plots is that all run concurrently slipping from one to the other seamlessly balancing out the underdog story with the tales of these three men so that it never seems weighted in favour of one or another.
Now I may also be a bit biased as I have always enjoyed movies set in this era, that being the 1930's and "Seabiscuit" is a prime example of this at its best. With beautiful sets and amazing costumes it really does make you feel like you are back in much simpler times. What is also noticeable about this movie is that it doesn't rely on any camera trickery, CGI or huge special effects to enthral the watcher, it is the beautifully told story of these men and horse which makes you want to watch. My only real criticism of the movie is the occasional very unsubtle piece of dialogue which whilst not spoiling the overall enjoyment of the movie is a bit annoying. Dialogue such as when Charles Howard is selling a car and says "I wouldn't spend more than 5 dollars on the best horse". For me this and other similar dialogue is just too corny and is out of place in what otherwise is a pretty perfect movie.
What is also surprising is looking at the choice of actors to play the three focal characters, I personally would have not even considered two of them due to the sorts of movies and roles they had previously done, but in fact this trio of talented actors deliver some stunning performances. First up and the only one who I would have considered for the role is Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard the horses jockey. Whilst he may now days be better known as the web slinger, "Spiderman", he showed how good he was in these type of roles when he played Homer Wells in "The Cider House Rules". I honestly cannot fault Maguire's performance as you forget you are watching this talented young actor and become involved in the life of his character. The character of Red Pollard itself is pretty decent as not only is he struggling to make a living in what is quite a cut throat a nasty business but is also dealing with the resentment he holds towards his family.
Next up is Chris Cooper as the horses trainer Tom Smith. Having only ever scene Cooper play modern, hard nosed, business type characters he would not have been my first choice for this role, but he puts in one of his best and most enjoyable performances to date. Giving his character a rather mystical feel as he manages to calm even the wildest of horses and understand what makes them tick, his character is just as detailed as that of Red Pollard. Like wise the character seems to be struggling as times move on and he is left in the past, and you get a real sense of a man being lost when the camera focuses on Cooper's face.
In some ways the weakest of the three performances comes from Jeff Bridges as the horses owner Charles Howard, but it is still a very good performance. Whilst the other two actors manage to become there characters allowing you to forget you are watching actors, Bridges never quite manages this. It may not help that he has the majority of the dialogue which I found to be rather unsubtle and out of place. The character of Charles Howard is again as good as those of Red Pollard and Tom Smith and the combination of these three very interesting characters really makes the movie rather special. Whilst these three characters are definitely the main focus of the movie, William H. Macy who plays a radio commentator for the horse racing is absolutely marvellous with his fast talking and slightly jokey manner.
Quite often in movies of this period and also in the underdog sporting genre, the director overly concentrates on just one of the elements, whether it is the stock sporting scenes, or throwing too much period information in our face. But director Gary Ross has done an exceptional job of providing a very well balanced movie which does not show any bias to any one of the elements. Whilst obviously the movie is fundamentally a sporting movie, the way he has combined the stories revolving around these men with just the right amount of period information makes this movie appeal to a much wider audience who would usually shy away from a sporting movie.
What is also noticeable is his very honest approach to making the movie, relying on the wonderful story to keep you interested instead of resorting to unnecessary special effects or out of place action sequences. That is not to say the movie is just a pleasant canter through a meadow, as it does have some very well choreographed moments of stunning action, but not once do you feel that these are contrived to just grad the viewers attention. Even the occasional intervention of a narrator to tell you some historical fact to set the period, or the use of old photos to demonstrate the effect of the Wall Street crash feel perfectly at home within the movie. What is also surprising is at a bum numbing 135 minutes long you never once feel that the movie is dragging its feet and the time passes remarkably quickly.
What this all boils down to is that despite paying reverence to your typical sporting underdog story, "Seabiscuit" provides a much wider appeal by not only mixing this pretty much stock storyline effectively with some engaging stories revolving around the three men's search for a purpose but by also by using the setting of the 1930s and the Big Depression to provide a wonderful backdrop. With some classy performances by three very talented actors and a seemingly honest approach to movie making where the story is the most important thing, this movie will definitely not only surprise you but will also charm you. A movie about a racehorse, may not appeal to you I would strongly recommend taking a look at "Seabiscuit" as it is definitely much more and a lot better than it would first appear.