Horse Balm

The story of Seabiscuit, a beat-up wreck of a horse and his beat-up wreck of a jockey who rose together from Depression-era nowhere to win every high-stakes horse race in the West, comes with the heft of the basic American dream—and, as a best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, also reveals some pretty black nightmares. Hillenbrand in no way slights the victories; her version of the horse's improbable path to glory is a story of the wide-open West, land of opportunity for the downtrodden, triumphing over the snobby, hidebound East. But it's also a story of the worst economic collapse America has ever weathered, and of the insane world of American sports, in this case about fully grown men who work and starve themselves to death, destroying their bodies and those of their horses to stay in the game, while millions of destitute fans float their last pennies on betting slips. Hillenbrand sees inspiration in that—history, after all, is seldom made by people of moderation—but she doesn't flinch from the terrible costs.

It will come as no surprise that Gary Ross' likable but hopelessly folksy movie, which he adapted with market-savvy selectivity from Hillenbrand's book, skews heavily toward the American dream that will never go away, the dream that, even in the worst of circumstances, anyone with the right attitude can make it big. This is disappointing, for though I wouldn't exactly call Ross a titan of radical cultural critique, Big and Dave (which he wrote) and Pleasantville (which he wrote and directed) add up to a cheeky, '60s-style track record of exploding some of our choicer pieties within the frame of a mass-market movie. Where comedy set free a playful and critical spirit in Ross, drama seems to have trapped him in sonorous uplift. Seabiscuit nods dutifully at the catastrophe of the Depression, but fundamentally it tidies the material into an old Hollywood standard extolling the virtues of broken spirits who, given a second chance, can become winners given enough grit, perseverance and help from self-made millionaires who never forget where they came from. “You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little” is the mantra that flows between Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard, a charming car manufacturer with a nose for publicity who went from nothing to riches and (sort of) back again in the stock-market crash; the horse's monosyllabic trainer, Tom Smith, and his rider, “Red” Pollard, a bright, angry kid cut loose from his family by the Depression, who's too big and too blind to be a jockey, and does it anyway.

In fact, the four-way symmetry between these three knockabout obsessives and the temperamental, knobbly-kneed steed they put their faith in would be the movie's fascinating core were it not for Ross' uncanny determination to turn them into cartoons. As the impossibly goodhearted Howard (where are those saintly CEOs when we need them?), Jeff Bridges, one of America's most capable and versatile actors, has little to do but look pained when anyone suffers and beam good intentions at one and all, while his second wife, Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), in real life a peppy adventuress, is tamed into a compulsively supportive smiler. Tobey Maguire displays a tad more animation than usual as the monomaniacal Pollard, while Chris Cooper is almost too perfectly cast as the strong, silent Smith, who looks at horse and jockey and senses instinctively that two minuses make a plus. Sadly, none of them has anything of note to say in a script bogged down in expository aphorism that, exacerbated by David McCullough's droning voice-over (“It was the beginning and the end of imagination all at the same time”) to make sure we get the period significance, plays like an episode of The Waltons.

Sunk in solemnity, Ross spends the first half of the movie industriously lobbing us movie clichs: importuning close-ups and endless pounding horses' hooves in slow-mo, the Depression pictured in reverent black-and-white versus the cornball golden glow that bathes Seabiscuit as he races through autumnal woods. Things liven up a touch when Ross lets his inner comedian out to play—William H. Macy steals the scenery out from under everyone as he brings a carnival barker's brio to the role of radio sports reporter “Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin, while jockey Gary Stevens, who even has the face of a handsome horse, discovers the actor within as Red Pollard's suave friend and nemesis, George Woolf. Two-thirds of the way through, Seabiscuit awakes to its duties as a perfectly presentable race movie, rising to a crescendo of satisfying—if somewhat gaga—inspiration.

At the end of her book, Hillenbrand caps the climactic race by revealing that George Woolf died at 35, a victim of diabetes and his own excessive dieting. The compulsively honest Smith, almost certainly suspended in error by the Racing Commission for the malfeasance of one of his grooms, expired in a nursing home with hardly a soul to attend his funeral. Pollard, crippled by multiple injuries and poor health care while Seabiscuit lived large on Howard's estate, ended up sorting mail in a post office and shining the shoes of other jockeys. Perhaps most shamefully of all, the Santa Anita Racetrack was retooled as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Seabiscuit, the movie, stops short of all this, reworking itself into a heroic tale of “the little guy who doesn't know he's a little guy,” and thus becomes a big cheese beloved of all the little guys who didn't make it. This is the kind of tried-and-true Hollywood half-truth that sustains America's notion of itself as the quintessential open society. It's also a travesty of history, and a betrayal of the mass miseries of the Depression.

Seabiscuit was written and directed by Gary Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Ross and Jane Sindel; and stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper. Now playing countywide.

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