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Triumph of the underdog

It is not every day that a movie about horseracing gets put on the silver screen. After all, what is captivating about a miniature human whipping an animal ten times his size in an effort to keep the horse's legs churning? Hordes, myself included, will flock to see the same recycled rags-to-riches story when it centers on baseball or football because it contains characters easy to identify with. As for a horse though, fast as it may be, I have the slightest idea what connection I will have with it.

As I am sure you can surmise, Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand's best selling novel, is about a horse that wins many races. That was the extent of my knowledge going into the film, and it is all you want to know. I believe my ignorance, in this case, enhanced my enjoyment, as the events that unfolded were new to me. Surely Hollywood spruced it up, but the tail of Seabiscuit is truly a remarkable tale. Like clockwork, as one obstacle is overcome, another springs into place.

There really is a great deal to praise about this movie, starting with the dramatic scenes of horseracing. The races elucidate an element of combat between each jockey invisible to the casual viewer. It is not enough for me to plan on watching the next running of the Kentucky Derby, but it might keep me from changing the channel. Nothing, however, is more noteworthy than the superb performances given by the major characters. As expected, Chris Cooper gives a powerful, yet thoughtful, turn as the horse's quietly passionate trainer Tom Smith. And both Tobey Maguire, as jockey Red Pollard, and Jeff Bridges, as owner Charles Howard, follow suit with equally inspired performances. Not surprisingly though, William H. Macy manages to outshine all, with his utterly charismatic take of announcer Tick Tock McLaughlin. Only Howard's wife, Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), seems to be underdeveloped among the group. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ineffective courtship scene between her and Charles. We see both of them laughing and smiling at each other, but the film opts for some sappy background music in lieu of the great conversation they are apparently having.

My only real gripe with the film is the black and white stills and accompanying voice over describing the state of America during the Depression. Clearly, the intention of the photos is to frame the story, and show how Seabiscuit polarized the nation during its darkest hour, but a more subtle approach would have been more effective. Not only do the photos break the flow of the film, but they also come off preachy and heavy-handed. For most of the film, their use was irritating, but I audibly groaned when the film breaks away from a horseracing scene to show black and whites of people's reactions to the radio broadcast. In a one hundred and fifty minute film, this is easy fat to trim.

Preceding its opening, considerable Oscar-hype surrounded this film, and after my viewing, I see nothing to indicate that it will cease. Its triumphant story will satisfy those looking for an uplifting film, while its Depression era setting makes it a film of Oscar-caliber importance. I am not saying that it deserves to sweep the Oscars, but it has produced worthy candidates for a couple of the trophies.


Rated PG-13
2 hours 20 minutes

Tobey Maguire
Jeff Bridges
Chris Cooper
Elizabeth Banks
William H. Macy