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IN SHORT: Our audience cheered. The 2003 Oscar race begins here. [Rated PG-13 for some sexual situati
At the core of all that is, the best stories are the ones that are true; stories of the average shlub climbing to the highest peak a la the fictional Rocky Balboa. The story detailed in Seabiscuit is true. It is about a story that fired the imaginations of Americans beaten down by the Great Depression of a scrawny shlub, broken and dismissed by all that met him that overcame all odds and negative pronouncements. It is also a film which demonstrates why horse racing is the most dangerous sport played in the world
We're not talking about the horse called Seabiscuit, yet. We're talking about a jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire), turned out by his family when he showed his "gift" for horses -- dad was destroyed by the Depression and Johnny was sent to make his own way. We're talking about horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) a loner who broke wild mustangs from their packs in the still Wild West and who seems to, at times, have almost a supernatural connection to his animals. Smith fights for the forlorn and is the first to step in to protect horses about to be "put down". We're talking about a failling bicycle salesman Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges) who suffers through tragedies that we'll leave to writer/director Gary Ross to spring on you.
Finally we come to the story of Seabiscuit, a physically small horse -- a total loser when he was discovered by Smith -- who thanks to weekly races and the power of the then fledgling radio business (William H. Macy as the broadcaster on scene) became a national phenomena.
What is remarkable about Ross' film is that the obvious standup and cheer moments are not always center screen. Narration by David McCollough easily sets the scene and eases you back in time to the stories that come before the horse called Seabiscuit is discovered. This horse, when first seen is a broken animal, a lousy racer used to train other racehorses how to win. An ultimate underdog, eventually to be run and trained by its own set of underdogs.
On the other end of the scale are the horses jockied by George Woolf (real life jockey Gary Stevens who makes a terrific film debut), the cream of the crop and the stars of the show. While Seabiscuit tears up the tracks in California, the eyes of the press are on a larger, sleeker model called War Admiral, a Triple Crown Winner and Horse of the Year in 1937. War Admiral is Horse of the Year because Seabiscuit is smaller and has proven to be beatable and the press has a built in prejudice towards horses that run the traditional circuit on the East Coast, which does not include the California based colt. That will change. Jockey Woolf will have a very big part to play in that change as well.
When the race occrred, the world stopped. The President was late for his press conference. The race track allowed the great unwashed into its infield to watch the race. All the details of the race have stacked the odds against the upstart from California. Eastern Money, in their fancy suits, smirk as the champion horse comes from behind to catch the shrimp. Which is exactly the race plan laid out for Seabiscuit. That's how he liked to race. From behind. We've seen film of the original race. We've seen film of Red Pollard and his own travails. We've now seen this re-creation. Ooo baby.
Once it's done and once the world changes changes, though, the roof falls in on everybody. That's all you need to know.
We do want to comment on director Ross' construction of his film -- with A-grade actors like Maguire, Bridges and Cooper the kudos for their work are given. Given that most films of this genre let loose the orchestra full blast when moments of triumph occur, it is notable that Ross does just the opposite. Randy Newman's score holds back a those moments, even as Ross decides to show points of view that the audience doesn't necessarily want to see. It's a brave thing to do and it works solely because the performances are so good. Our audience did break out into applause and cheering midway through the film. Spontaneity, in our opinion, is a good thing and while (We) could have been manipulated into something louder Ross chose not to go there. That makes Seabiscuit a very satisfying sit. One which left us with a big smile on our face.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Seabiscuit, he would have paid . . .
and Seabiscuit earns consideration for our Best of the Year list
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