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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Seabiscuit

Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges
Director: Gary Ross
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 140 Minutes
Release Date: July 2003
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Elizabeth Banks, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy, Annie Corley, Stephen Jared, Sam Bottoms, Peter Jason, Eddie Jones, Sean Keeley, Michael O'Neill

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Just about everyone loves an underdog, especially movie- goers who ache to see their favorite team win in the final shot just as the buzzer goes off. "Seabiscuit," then, has the makings of a great crowd-pleaser not only because the title character (played by ten horses, each bearing a specialty) is a most unexpected champion. That's not all. The story is by Laura Hillenbrand which remains on the paperback best-seller list though she expected to see maybe 5,000 copies from the back of her car. There's more. The jockey, played winningly by Tobey Maguire, is too tall for the job, weighs too much, and has been through a succession of Depression-inspired losses. Most of all, the tale takes place during the 1930's, a time that the entire country was going through economic hell with twenty-five percent of the labor force unemployed, the only hope for relief with Franklin D. Roosevelt a millionaire who unlike our current chief executive sided with the underdog to provide massive help through the National Recovery Act.

While the four-hundred page paperback goes into considerable detail, much overlooked to squeeze emotion into a film that runs an all-too-short 140 minutes, scripter-director Gary Ross knows how to balance the need for character exposition with the requirements of cinematic drama. The racetrack scenes are convincing, though we can easily tell that Mr Maguire, shown during each race only in closeup (with the scenery moving perhaps?) while his stunt double is regularly caught from the rear appears shorter than the star as the vast majority of jockeys would be. (For the role Maguire trimmed down to 137 pounds from his previous 160, though at weigh-ins the scale regularly shows 115. Now that's the kind of scale to own!)

"Seabiscuit" is as much about the two-legged characters as the equine animals, a patient exposition springing to life when the jockey Red Pollar (Maguire), owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) and trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) finally get together to discuss their agenda for winning races. Howard, who could not make a go with his bicycle sale-and-repair shop, sees the American Dream beginning in 1906 as the owner of a lot selling new cars which would begin to replace horses as the favored method of transportation. Having ironically said that he wouldn't pay $5 for the best horse in town, he buys the improbably small Seabiscuit who on his first round on the practice track wiggles and wobbles like a two-months' old pup exploring the wonders of the outdoors for the first time. Red Pollard, a jockey whom Howard expects to remain in that position forever, comes out of hard-scrabble childhood, given away by his poverty-stricken Irish-immigrant parents to a man who could exploit the young man's gift for riding. When the soft- spoken horse-whisperer Tom Smith (often called Silent Tom) manages to quiet the wild Seabiscuit down, the horse is on the road to becoming to a champion.

Narrated in a dry, Masterwork Theater manner by historian David McCulloch but given comic leeway by the race-track announcer Tick Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy who outdoes Walter Winchell in a radio-crazed era), "Seabiscuit" throws add extra soap-opera touches, particularly that jockey Pollard, unknown to his boss, is blind in one eye (the cause not brought out in the film but the result of having had a stone kicked into his race during a race), is thrown by a spooked horse and suffers a leg injury which appears to end his career. Seabiscuit himself becomes lame and is almost put down by the vet but goes on to wrap up with a grand victory.

The music score by Randy Newman is perfect: building up to a crescendo during the races but low-key and often sentimental otherwise, while photographer John Schwartzman brings us closer to the track than most of us in the audience will ever get. In a stunning film debut, real-life jockey Gary Stevens serves in the role of George Woolf, who takes over for Pollard during the latter's recovery from an accident while Elizabeth Banks is fine in the underwritten role of Howard's second wife Marcela.

In the backstretch of this sequel-saturated summer season, what more can we ask for?

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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