The racing scenes in Seabiscuit are thrilling and smart. When the starter’s bell goes off, the screen erupts in an impeccably choreographed riot of close-ups: colored silks, steely faces, and churning legs and flanks, all accompanied by the sound of thundering hoofbeats. In between, long shots follow surging thoroughbred bodies, resolve and poetry in hard-charging bursts of motion.
Shot by DP John Schwartzman and designed by recently retired Hall of Fame Jockey Chris McCarron, these breathtaking scenes serve multiple functions (and do their work, even as they’re intercut with annoying reaction shots from principals in the stands). Engaging viewers emotionally, in a way that the rest of the summer’s car chases and explosions can’t even imagine doing, they also create an exhilarating rhythm for Seabiscuit’s story. Adapted by director Gary Ross from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about the 1930s’ superstar, the film plainly loves its subject. An emblem for losers at a time—the Depression—when millions of U.S. citizens felt that way, the horse surprised everyone, including his owner, Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges).
The film, of course, milks the events leading to this surprise, restaging history for maximum emotional effect (pounded by Randy Newman’s big fat score), at least as it’s been promulgated by Hillenbrand’s book (subtitled “An American Legend”) and follow-up pieces, a PBS American Experience documentary, and DreamWorks’ publicity machine. In the film as in the book, he becomes a walking metaphor for “American Dreaming,” heartwarming and humungo success, ostensibly resulting from dedication and faith in the face of impossible odds. Seabiscuit is ugly (his knees bend wrong), lazy (he likes to sleep for hours on end, very unusual for a thoroughbred), grumpy (not so unusual, given the physical and mental demands on racehorses, but he is ferocious), and startlingly small (almost a foot shorter than his chief rival, the glorious 1937 Triple Crown winner, War Admiral).
After years of abuse, he just needs “to learn how to be a horse again,” observes his trainer to be, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper). And that makes Seabiscuit seem ideal salvation for three lost souls, whose introductions take up the film’s first half-hour. The owner Howard is an erstwhile bicycle repairman and self-made millionaire (when he built the most profitable Buick dealership in the West), and the trauma that breaks him (an accidental death) is conveyed in brief though maudlin images: the truck wheel spinning sadly, fishing gear scattered in roadside mud. In short order, he broods, his wife leaves him, he broods some more, and he meets the next missus, the inspirational Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), while visiting Tijuana, where, during the Depression, Americans with money could spend it.
The other men who come within Seabiscuit’s redemptive sphere are Tom and jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), both struggling to make a living, Tom training horses for a demeaning Wild West Show, and Red boxing (and losing badly) in between whatever rides he can wheedle at the track. The film cuts between Tom’s melancholy face, as he saves a lame horse from being put down by his irate owner (“You don’t throw a whole life away just ‘cause it’s banged up a little,” he explains), and Red’s bruised one, as he longs to fulfill the promise that so impressed his long gone and much missed father (who bestowed on him a love of Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson).
Beaten down these men may be, but like the horse, they only need a “second chance” in order to head toward their finish line, which Howard, ever the salesman, likes to call “the future.” (It’s worth noting, though the film mostly leaves him to the side, that Seabiscuit also has a groom, Sam [Kingston DuCoeur], supportive, soft-spoken, and black—indicating that the racetracks were early on integrated, though certainly tiered by racism.) The film renders their falls in impressionistic shorthand, compressing the book’s sinuous movements but achieving a similar effect: the men are destined to come together as they invest their combined energies in a surly horse.
Seabiscuit itself gains considerable energy when the horse shows up: for all the emoting here, both low-key and blustery (Howard/Bridges is especially prone to this last), he is easily the most awesome element, whether displayed in entertaining full figure or, on occasion, as a flurry of muscle and sweat that constitutes his rider’s point of view. However, the three-way structure stretches thin across the other principals, especially as the film jumps from event to event and race to race, labeling some (the San Onofore Handicap, the San Rafael Handicap), but mostly without explanation concerning their importance. Most abrupt is the leap from Seabiscuit’s laggy anonymity to stardom: in the film, it takes only one race to have reporters clamoring for quotations from the reticent Tom.
Two races are highlighted. The first (actually run two times in the film), the Santa Anita Handicap, in Arcadia, CA, is famous as the nation’s first “hundred-grander” stakes, and the second is the one-time-only match race between West Coast underdog Seabiscuit and East Coast Royalty War Admiral, run at Baltimore’s Pimlico, at the behest of War Admiral’s patrician owner Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones). (During this race, Chris McCarron plays War Admiral’s jockey, Charley Kurtsinger.) As they should, these contests provide climaxes, though they are sometimes cut strangely; even aside from the cutaways to Tom or Howard or poor, underwritten Marcela in the stands, their jaws clenched or dropped, the rhythms of these races are undermined by still photos of fans listening to the radio or burns to white screens.
Narrated by PBS historian David McCullough, the film works between myth and history, deploying facts and myth as they best serve the melodrama. Newsreels viewed by the popcorn-noshing principals provide a semblance of context, as do archival, Dorthea Lange-ish photos of “little people,” those who so cherished Seabiscuit’s success, here frozen in grim-faced eternity, memories of a collective sense of loss and desire for deliverance. A made-up radio announcer, “Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin (William H. Macy), provides some Spike-Jonesy sound effects and commentary on events—shock at the unheralded horse’s talents, big boosterism for the champion, and general comedic sideshow in relation to the narrative proper.
This narrative parallels Seabiscuit’s fall-and-rise-fall-and-rise-again with the relentless course of the Depression as challenged, in rising and falling waves, by the many programs of FDR’s New Deal. The film suggests that the idea of the hardy New Deal, like the idea of the resilient Seabiscuit, was the most important aspect, sort of mythmaking as mythmaking. Explaining his horse’s capacity for triumph no matter the adversity (and the film chronicles some devastating traumas, for him and Red especially), Howard eloquently proclaims to the adoring press corps, “When the little guy doesn’t know he’s a little guy, he can do big things.” And they scurry to write it down on their pads.
As splendidly symbolic as this sounds, the scene is almost more compelling than the language, as it shows how the mythology is erected, through media, through repetition, and through need. Some reviewers have been touting Seabiscuit as the “little” movie that could (or should) beat out the summer’s action blockbusters. Surely, slowing the flow of these seasonal monsters seems all good, especially if it really meant that small, independent, smart movies would be allowed more than a weekend’s box office returns to “prove” their “worth.”
Seabiscuit is not precisely that redemption. It’s not a small, independent gem, a “David” facing down the bullies (this is a very pleasant political allegory at this particular moment). It is, in fact, an imperfect film, overblown in its own way and too eager to crowd-please, an entity nurtured by large, Oscar-chasing studios, it may at least suggest an alternative way of imagining summer movies. And for all that, it offers up those lovely, exhilarating races. At these moments, it feels most like it’s about horses, and their particular poetry.