Seabiscuit is the movie everybody's been waiting for ' everybody who wasn't waiting for The Hulk, Charlie's Angels and Terminator 3, that is. Pitched squarely at the Saving Private Ryan crowd, this Depression-era folktale has positioned itself as the come-from-behind movie in the summer box-office sweepstakes, just as Seabiscuit, the horse that fed a hungry nation's appetite for proletarian heroes, defied the odds and beat the mighty War Admiral, winner of the Triple Crown. Based on Laura Hillenbrand's highly informative book, Seabiscuit comes out of the gate in mythic mode and doesn't let up until the finish line. Many will find that enchanting. Others will long for a dose of reality.
It's not that writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) loses touch with reality. He shows us the hard luck that made this hard-luck story possible. But everything's bathed in nostalgia, even the period photographs over which PBS icon David McCullough lays down a Ken Burns-ish narration. In Ross' defense, the Seabiscuit story lends itself to this kind of treatment. Did we ever have a more fitting symbol for everything we supposedly stand for? An ugly duckling among swans, Seabiscuit had stubby legs, knobby knees and an egg-beater gait. He also had ' as the movie tells us more than once ' a big heart. In the Sport of Kings, he was a commoner, a pauper. Even the name, Seabiscuit, suggests a hard-tack life.
Like the book, the movie focuses on three men who rode Seabiscuit to fame and fortune, licking one another's wounds along the way. Owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) sold cars before turning his attention to horses. Then he lost his son in an auto accident. Trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), the last of the cowboys, was one of those guys who prefer four-legged animals over two-legged ones. And Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was a too-tall, prone-to-fall jockey who never amounted to much until he met a certain too-small, prone-to-eat-and-sleep horse. The three were an unlikely trio. But like their fellow countrymen at the time, they pulled together to do things none of them could have done on his own.
Ross drives that message home. He drives all the messages home, over and over again. Which is a pity, because although there's not a lot of subtlety in the script, there's some fine acting and some wonderful storytelling. Cooper, in particular, shines. Holding back, he makes us come to him, as if we were a horse that needed to be broken in gently. Bridges does his usual terrific work, nailing Howard with a few deft strokes. And Maguire, 20 pounds lighter, has lost that softness in his face, although he still seems a little miscast as a hothead. Alas, none of the actors is able to uncork a full-fledged performance. There simply isn't enough time, Ross compressing like crazy to get it all in. Important scenes may last only 10 seconds.
Especially early on, the compression works, moving the story along at a brisk pace. But during the homestretch, the movie actually loses steam, there being almost no dramatic conflict among the main characters. Seabiscuit is an amazing story, maybe too amazing. Just holding on to the reins took everything Ross had.