A review of “Seabiscuit” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for adult situations

Run Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

 

 

          Releasing an uplifting, pro-Americana drama in the thick of the stagnant summer-action season may appear to be risky business, but in reality it’s the brilliant counter-marketing move of a source who understands that less can be more.  Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 best-selling book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend”, this flag-waving beauty is almost worthy of the gamble. 

          Seabiscuit was a runty Thoroughbred who galvanized post-Depression America (circa 1930s) with his indomitable spirit and can-do work ethic.  His story is the stuff of fantasy, and ripe for the cinematic picking. (Think a four-legged “Rocky”).  Sired by a champion but passed from trainer to trainer because of a poor disposition and disappointing track record, Seabiscuit finally caught the eye of legendary eccentric Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a reclusive “horse whisperer” with a gift for sniffing out a winner. 

          Seabiscuit’s owner was self-made San Francisco entrepreneur Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a stoic millionaire reeling from a tragic family accident that altered his personal landscape and sent him in search of something or someone to salve the wounds. The loving tutelage of feisty second wife Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) was a step in the right direction, but destiny took care of the rest.  The stars aligned to bring together a triumvirate of determined men (Howard, Smith, and conflicted jockey Red Pollard) who would bear Seabiscuit (the perpetual underdog) to glory.

          Horses or humans?  “Seabiscuit” lays claim to its prerogative to play fast and loose with its character back-story and docu-drama Depression history (narrated in a desert-dry voice-over by David McCullough) while maintaining its equestrian patina. That loss of focus, and a penchant for telegraphing the obvious, undermines the story’s heartfelt glaze. Fraught with sentiment and one-dimensional storytelling, the narrative lacks the challenging edge necessary to augment its picture-postcard perfection.

          Visually the film is a thing of beauty, awash in the clarity of a more innocent time.  The horse races reek of the heady scent of competition – taut and thrilling. Casting is stereotypically inspired: Tobey Maguire (as Pollard) for his quirks, Chris Cooper for his quiet peculiarities, and Bridges for his brooding charm. The six horses who play Seabiscuit himself are a study in sleek horsy posturing -- galloping, rearing, and prettily preening.

          Bottom line, “Seabiscuit” is a lavish disappointment -- a saccharine valentine to America’s post-Depression era spirit that carries its earnest shine too far over the finish line.