THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Hallelujah! That’s what I have to say after seeing Seabiscuit. Back in May when I reviewed The Italian Job, I commented that the summer movie season was shaping up to be a good one. How wrong I was! No sooner did I write those words than everything went downhill. I feel like I have endured more junk this summer than in any previous moviegoing summer I can remember. Finally, along comes a film that honestly and truly delivers on its promise. Just as the real Seabiscuit restored the faith of a Depression-era society, so does Seabiscuit - the movie - restore my faith in the warm-weather cinematic season. It’s been worth sitting though Wrong Turn, From Justin To Kelly, Alex & Emma, Bad Boys II and all the other wretched films just to have this one.

Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best selling book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” the film recounts the much beloved racehorse who captured the hearts of a nation. Seabiscuit’s tale begins with the meeting of three people and a horse. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) is a former bicycle repairman turned highly-successful auto salesman. Following the tragic death of his son as well as the loss of his fortune in the great stock market crash, Howard decides to buy a racehorse. Dubbed Seabiscuit, the creature’s previous owner has essentially trained it to lose – a skill the animal is exceptionally good at. Howard hires a trainer named Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) to work with the horse. Smith knows Seabiscuit has been written off, but he has a motto that a horse shouldn’t be killed simply because he’s a little busted up. He sees something in Seabiscuit’s eyes that tell him there’s a winner inside. What they need is some proper retraining and the right jockey. That person is Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire). Years earlier, Red’s parents also lost their fortune in the crash, so they left their talented son in the care of a stable owner who could provide for him. That scenario leaves the adult Red with a chip on his shoulder; he’s determined to succeed, no matter the odds. Not even his own partial blindness weakens his resolve.

This combination is a good one, and before long Seabiscuit is winning some small-time races. As the men learn more about the horse’s temperament, they realize he could be a world-class champion. Their goal is to have him race War Admiral, a “perfect” racehorse considered unbeatable – probably because he hasn’t been beaten. War Admiral’s owner scoffs at the challenges Howard and company put before him, so they enter Seabiscuit in every race they can, hoping to make a face-off impossible to ignore. Along the way, there are various trials and tribulations, including Red’s serious leg injury that necessitates another jockey substituting in a major race. Seabiscuit himself is injured as well, but like his rider, he is not willing to go down without a fight.

In the wrong hands, Seabiscuit might have been just another story of someone triumphing over adversity. It probably would have been good, but not particularly special. However, writer-director Gary Ross (Dave, Pleasantville) stays true to what Hillenbrand’s book was really about, namely the impact Seabiscuit had on a devastated nation. Although the film indisputably does an outstanding job of conveying the triumph-over-adversity elements of the story, it takes things a step further, making Seabiscuit an emotional, inspirational experience.

Ross understands what this horse meant to America. During the Depression, lots of people lost their jobs, their money, their homes. They went from being financially secure to being destitute. It seemed like the American Way had failed them. Then they found this horse – one that, by all accounts, was destined for the glue factory. Nevertheless, he persevered and went on to become a winner. Those behind-the-scenes toughed it out too. Seabiscuit’s owner had lost a lot financially and then gained most of it back. His jockey was half-blind but rode anyway. They all seemed to follow the motto of the trainer, who believed in second chances. Seabiscuit (and his team) came to represent the can-do spirit that has always fueled this country: we may be down, but we are never out. People found inspiration in the story of this racehorse and suddenly they believed that they, too, could beat the odds.

That’s a powerful thing for film to convey, but Ross does it brilliantly. For example, in one of the racing scenes, the director keeps his camera on the horse right up until the starting bell rings. We expect to see a standard shot of all the horses bursting through the gate; instead, Ross cuts to black-and-white still photographs of people gathered around their radios while a scratchy old play-by-play commentary runs on the soundtrack. This moment is especially powerful, as it conveys the sense that America was glued to the radio, listening intently in hopes that their hero would find victory. I really felt the deeper significance of this horse during scenes like this. Seabiscuit makes you understand how the hopes and dreams of so many could rest upon the back of this beautiful creature.

In the acting department, Seabiscuit similarly enters the winner’s circle. Maguire, Bridges, and Cooper are all superb, delivering memorable performances of quiet dignity. Just as Pollard, Howard, and Smith were in real life, this is a strong team of people who work together to achieve greatness. Each actor brings his character’s dilemma to life. You can feel their desire to win – not because they want money and glory, but because they need to know they aren’t down for the count. The human element here is what really gives the film its power. William H. Macy also delivers a nice supporting performance as a radio announcer who reports frequently on Seabiscuit.

I could probably write all day about the good things this movie contains: the spectacular racing sequences, the gorgeous cinematography, the affecting narration by David McCullough that helps put the events into perspective. Instead, I want to talk about the last shot, which I will not reveal. Seabiscuit - as anyone familiar with the true story knows – is a tale of victory. However, the film doesn’t end with the usual celebration scene in which everyone yells and jumps for joy. The last shot is a quiet one. Despite that quietness, there is so much emotion there that I got all choked up. That final image – perhaps more than any other – really captures the reason why the story of Seabiscuit and his team is as inspiring now as it was then: these guys didn’t just win the race, they won in life.

( out of four)

Seabiscuit is rated PG-13 for language, some sexual situations and violent sports related images. The running time is 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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