Bucking the Odds
The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted that there are no second acts in American lives. But a horse named Seabiscuit and the three men who shared his success would surely disagree.
Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit recounts the true story of an unprepossessing, knobby-kneed horse that became not only a racing legend but also a symbol of hope during the darkest days of the Great Depression. That Seabiscuit is good rather than great is a disappointment, but just finding a good film these days is rare, especially from a big studio.
Screenwriter and director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) deviates little from Hillenbrand’s acclaimed 2001 book. The title “character” doesn’t appear until 45 minutes into the film; instead, we meet three men who, like Seabiscuit himself, have suffered great hardships and are in desperate need of healing: owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and jockey Johnny “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire). Intercutting among the three, Ross produces a kind of extended prologue in which critical episodes in each character’s life are revealed.
The enterprising Howard left New York for San Francisco in 1903 with 21 cents in his pocket. He made millions in the automobile business, but his world fell apart when his young son died and his marriage collapsed. Smith was a taciturn cowboy whose way of life had all but disappeared by the second decade of the twentieth century. Pollard was born into a middle-class family, but when his father lost everything, the boy was cut loose.
The movie has a lot going for it, starting with Maguire, who is particularly good as the emotionally wounded jockey. The gifted Bridges is surprisingly one-dimensional, a fault perhaps of the screenplay rather than the actor. William H. Macy is a hoot in a supporting role as radio sports commentator “Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin.
Ross’ decision to drop in old black-and-white photos of America during the Great Depression, accompanied by narration from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, nearly stops the film in its tracks. Opening the film this way provides historical context for viewers, but McCullough’s voice and the photos return again and again, offering unnecessary parallels between what’s going on in the country and what the film’s characters are experiencing personally. When Howard reveals an almost paternal concern for Pollard, Ross cuts to old photos of Americans going back to work, thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s policies. “For the first time in a long time, someone cared,” intones McCullough.
An engaging and emotionally satisfying film despite its shortcomings, Seabiscuit benefits from its basis in fact. The whole country seemed to embrace Seabiscuit as its hero and mascot. Like the millions of Americans who endured the Depression, the common-man of a horse was beaten down but never beaten.