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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003
BORN TO WIN
A flick worth a flutter on
By KAORI SHOJI
"He be small, but he be fierce" was how jockey Red Pollard described a racehorse called Seabiscuit, an undersize, lazy colt that no trainer wanted to bother with.
Once in the right hands, though, Seabiscuit was transformed into a winner and an inspirational beacon of hope for many Americans struggling through the Great Depression. So much so, that on the afternoon Seabiscuit ran against Triple Crown winner War Admiral in Baltimore, Md., businesses shut and more than a million people had their ears to the radio.
The horse was a metaphor for the little guy who had the stuff to make it big: the equestrian equivalent of the American Dream. How Hollywood could have left such delicious material unattended for so long is a mystery (well, OK, there was a movie made back in 1949, but it was a fluffy thing starring Shirley Temple), but perhaps they were waiting for the best seller to come along first. And it did, three years ago. Laura Hillenbrand's densely researched and lovingly reported "Seabiscuit" became a national phenomenon that resurrected the legend of this horse.
Apparently a great fan of the novel, director Gary Ross signed on for the project and penned the screenplay. The result: a gorgeously shot story in which the mud kicked up by galloping horses' hooves flashes like sprays of gold dust and jockey uniforms gleam and ripple in the sun. Even if you're not a horse-racing fan, "Seabiscuit" will have you hanging out at the paddock the day after you see it.
Seabiscuit had never been trained to be a champion. He was too runty, hated to work and loved to eat. (In the film we see him napping almost as much as we see him racing.) He was moody and prone to tantrums, but his greatest fault was lack of speed. Trainers either tried to discipline him with the whip or taught him to lose, so as to make the winners coming around the final stretch look extra good.
Treated like that, Seabiscuit just got surlier -- until he was discovered by lone-wolf trainer "Silent Tom" Smith (played with subdued, commanding eloquence by Chris Cooper). Smith knew that Seabiscuit had the potential, and that all he needed was the right jockey to draw it out. That was Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a former boxer and exercise boy as unruly and angry as his new charge.
Pollard's riding career had nearly bled to death from the twin wounds of bad luck and poverty. At this point he was ready to do anything, and Smith knew right away it was a match made in racing heaven. The man to sponsor the whole outfit was Buick tycoon Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who had extolled the virtues of an automotive future but then switched to horses after his young son died in a car crash.
With every member of the Seabiscuit team nursing some kind of chip on their shoulder, horse and men gradually bond . . . and then start to win on the West Coast racing circuit.
The movie matches their triumph to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, throwing out sepia-toned photos of farmers and factory workers getting a respite from the Depression with new jobs through public works. And it was these same men who crowded the infield to catch a glimpse of Seabiscuit, or who crowd around radios when they can't make it to the track.
Between FDR and the racehorse, the United States got a booster shot to its flagging morale. "Just because something's battered don't mean you gotta throw it away" is Smith's way of summing it up. "Everyone deserves a second chance" is Howard's addition.
Such sagacious soundbites (delivered in the slow, manly drawl all three principal cast members have honed to an art form) dominate the dialogue, and this is perhaps where "Seabiscuit" trips and falls off the pace.
"Every horse is good for something." "The horse fixed us . . . and then we fixed each other." Did people really talk like that, even in the 1930s?
Actually, this particular conversational style has long been a Hollywood cliche: a period piece involving sports and/or father-and-son bonding will usually spin dialogue that seems straight out of the "Little House" books. Accompanying that, of course, is the uplifting original score (in this case by Randy Newman) that soars and swells in all the appropriate places. In fact, the whole thing is so pristine, with Ross relegating to the sidelines the one inescapable aspect of racing: gambling. It's barely mentioned, and before long this strikes you as simply bizarre.
But with an infallible storyline and dedicated performances (especially from Maguire, who dieted severely to play the 52-kg Pollard), why complain? Watching Howard watch Seabiscuit, you get an inkling of why an auto magnate would ditch everything to back a single horse; why he would invest his future in an unreliable and vulnerable animal over the sturdy predictability (and durability) of machines.
"Seabiscuit" is all about the magnificence of racing creatures -- both horse and jockey -- and the ensuing exhilaration. Unless of course, you want to gamble.