Seabiscuit is the ultimate in slick professionalism. It has gorgeous production design (Jeannine Oppewall deserves an Oscar), beautiful cinematography and carefully structured scenes, plus rock-solid performances from Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, and an unreservedly brilliant one from Chris Cooper. It’s a movie my mother would love. And from what I’ve been able to overhear from exiting audiences, it’s a movie a lot of people, mothers included, do love.
That said, I didn’t.
Maybe it’s my lack of any special fondness for horses. Maybe it’s that treacly Randy Newman score, at its best when it seems to flirt with copyright infringements on the “Nimrod” section of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Maybe it’s the film’s simplistic notion that Seabiscuit single-hoofedly pulled America out of the malaise of the Depression. Maybe it’s all those rear shots of jockeys with bad cases of V.P.L. (visible panty line) astride their mounts (surely there was some better vantage point that still obscured the fact that Maguire wasn’t really on that horse?). Maybe it’s the fact that a film that starts out by debunking the myth of mass suicides on Wall Street the day of the market crash should be so sloppy as to refer to Seabiscuit as the “biggest thing on four legs since Hope and Crosby” in 1937 — one year before Bob Hope became a movie star, and three years before Bob and Bing became a team. (Perhaps this was a sop to the film-writing Crosby — a key figure in the real-life story of Seabiscuit — who is here entirely left out of the proceedings.) Maybe it’s the constantly transparent setups whenever something bad is going to happen. Or maybe, it’s the clumsy intrusion of heavy-handed symbolism every so often (my personal favorite: the rug-beating intercut of Seabiscuit being ill-advisedly hit with a riding crop so that Maguire’s character mystically knows something awful is about to befall his equine pal).
But more likely than not, it’s all of those things combined with the shameless predictability of the film’s every event, its Oscar-bid sense of its own importance and its all-too-transparent bid to be a movie “like they used to.” It’s not that director Gary Ross doesn’t succeed in this last pursuit, but that the making-a-movie-like-they-used-to approach is wrong-headed from the start, overlooking that all those great old movies are great because a lot of filmmakers tried their damndest to make something fresh — that is, to not make their work “like they used to.”
That said, there’s not much freshness here. When we get to a scene with Messrs. Maguire, Bridges and Cooper hiding in the bushes to watch the training of Seabiscuit’s nemesis, War Admiral, we might as well be watching the Marx Brothers in A Day at the Races (Which is really a more honest film: At least people actually bet on the horses in it. In Seabiscuit, no one ever wages money on a race. In fact, the topic never comes up.)
Right now, Seabiscuit is getting something like a free pass simply because of all the incredible rubbish surrounding it in the multiplexes. (Just about anything looks pretty weighty when you stack it up against Bad Boys II. And the only thing that comes close to exploding in Seabiscuit is a tractor backfiring and spooking a horse into an outburst that leaves our jockey hero with a shattered leg.) The question is whether Seabiscuit is a true oasis in the desert, or merely a mirage.
It’s not that the story of this amazing horse and the three men who help bring the animal to racing greatness is without interest or merit. It’s that as the tale is presented here, it’s so incredibly earnest and high-minded, and buried beneath tons of supposed historical significance (all given extra weight by slapping on period photographs and a voice-over by PBS narrator David McCullough) and a lot of badly fleshed-out, never-resolved allegory about surrogate fathers and sons. Seabiscuit uneasily aims at being both a Capra-esque populist myth where the underdogs triumph, and also at being something greater. Director Ross is to be commended for creating the only uplifting movie in living memory that does not end with a swooping crane shot pulling back from the last scene. But note that can change the tone — and it’s one he never seems wholly comfortable with.
It’s historically accurate that jockey Red Pollard (Maguire) didn’t get to ride Seabiscuit to victory in the race against War Admiral — which, in itself, blunts the typical Great Moment. However, Ross not only dutifully records this, but he presents the first part of this momentous race offscreen, so that we — The People — only get to hear what’s going on over the radio. Similarly, his solution to the cliched crane-shot ending is to draw the film up short before letting us see the outcome of Pollard’s and Seabiscuit’s comeback. It’s like he’s trying to make a feel-good movie without the guilt.
But there’s a reason cliches become cliches — they work. And a good director knows how to use them to his advantage. And if he’s going to junk them, he’d better come up with an effective alternative. Ross doesn’t, while offering very little in their place and hoping that historical significance and his greater message will carry the day. Apparently, it does exactly that for a lot of people, but I never got away from the sense that I was watching a movie made by someone who didn’t really trust his material.
Seabiscuit is not a bad film. It’s entertaining and has good performances, and it’s undeniably a crowd-pleaser — and there’s a lot to be said for that. But ultimately, it’s a good movie that just tries too hard — and too blatantly — to be a great one.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke