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Published: Friday, 7/25/2003

Movie review: Seabiscuit ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Tobey Maguire at jockey Red Pollard. Tobey Maguire at jockey Red Pollard.
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About 45 minutes into Seabiscuit, Gary Ross' handsome, crowd-pleasing, if self-satisfied adaptation of the reads-like-a-rocket bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand about a Thoroughbred underdog and the three unforgettable men with the savvy to build an equine into the Lance Armstrong of his time, we first spot our four-legged hero. Small and unsteady, he doesn't look like anything special - and this is one of the film's more subtle sentiments: It's hard to say what makes a champion. Narrating the scene is Mr. PBS himself, David McCullough, whose familiar rasp pulls details out of the book that would be too good to be true, if they weren't true, more or less. Fat, lazy, and ornery, Seabiscuit - also the Homer Simpson of his time - trots out of a nighttime fog that glows blue and heavenly. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a horse trainer hanging on the racetrack rail, lazily watching, suddenly becomes electrified.

“The horse looked right though me,” he remembers, and we seem to watch blood wash from his face. He recalled that he gasped. Seabiscuit's eye refocused, recognized something in Smith, and for an instant, they were but one, horse and man. A thousand Randy Newman-led trumpets let loose in Tom Smith's head, and the cold embers of a Depression-era America flared into a raging passion and. like I said, if McCullough didn't reassure us that this mythic moment played as sappily poetic as he says, Ross would have had to embellish.

The filmmaker, best known for Pleasantville, gets a little carried away. He sands down the rough spots, underlines every emotion with the clarion blast of a Fanfare for the Common Manish score, often bleaching complicated characters into more palpable, containable Hollywood material. “It's better to break a man's leg than his heart,” we hear from the taciturn Smith. Hillenbrand painted him as a cranky scraper; in Ross' script, he becomes a New Deal Yoda with an aphorism for each setback: “You don't throw away a whole life just because it's a little banged up,” and so on. Then every few scenes Ross cuts to elegiac old black-and-white photos and a McCullough-narrated history of border towns, the stock market, the rise of Henry Ford - Seabiscuit becomes positively PBS. So much, it's hard to shake something McCullough says, though he was speaking of the birth of assembly lines:

“It was the beginning and end of imagination, all at the same time.”

Well said.

Well-behaved and well-groomed, too. Glossy and ambitious - if fastidiously true to the structure of the book without capturing its scruffiness or soul - writer-director Ross' Seabiscuit is pure national velvet: muscular and respectable, expensive-looking and predictably inspiring, cheap in its tastes, a little pokey in its pacing, a lot hokey, and a tad too smooth for its own good. An Oscar film, in short. You know this because even the prostitutes glow. But when the horse and his unforgettable men finally come together, Seabiscuit breaks into a confident gallop - it has heart, and heart still counts for a lot.

I just wish Ross let the poetry of fact speak for itself. For a couple of years now, Hillenbrand's book has been one of those spine-broken, dog-eared volumes you see every third person carrying through airports, and with good reason. Hillenbrand drew an incredibly engrossing and nuanced story of not only four outcasts, but a nation anxious for up-by-the-bootstrap populism during one of its toughest periods. Ross smartly locates a common pain in his remarkable humans: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), the first Buick dealer in California, loses a child, and then a wife; Tom Smith crosses the country in box cars, sleeping in the fields, solitarily indulging an almost spiritual understanding of horses; and Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), abandoned by parents, blind in one eye, is a soul adrift.

They all are, until Seabiscuit arrives to offer each personal salvation. If the story wasn't so well compelling, you'd never be able to digest so much syrup. But Ross ambitiously aims to accomplish nearly everything Hillenbrand accomplished: the story of a consistently undervalued racehorse that became one of the 20th century's first superstars; the stories of the three men who trained a horse into a national phenomenon; and the story of how Seabiscuit became a potent metaphor for American pluck at a dark time.

Ross takes mostly the long view. No more so than in a pivotal race: Seabiscuit and War Admiral trot to the finish line, the bell rings, and - Ross cuts to still photographs of Americans listening to a broadcast of the race. It's incredibly brave, and awfully misguided.

The spell is broken, and the tension evaporates; as with so much in this film, the adrenaline gets sucked out. The cast is uniformly good with relatively thin, simplistically written characters. (The women, who mostly react, become an after-thought.) William H. Macy injects some needed laughs as “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin, a sound effect-happy radio announcer. Real jockey Gary Stevens is a find: he has natural charisma as a friend of Pollard's who steps in when disaster strikes; his rangy eyes and edgy spring contains the kind of detail that's missing. History sure isn't. But if only we could have smelled the stables, felt the wind in our hair, picked the mud out of our teeth as a old bay breaks into the lead.

Ross opts instead for the safe auburn tint of nostalgia, the kind usually accompanied with slanting sunlight. And still he oddly skips one of the more important points of Hillenbrand's book: Seabiscuit wasn't Lance Armstrong huge, he was Tom Cruise huge. Kids carried Seabiscuit lunchboxes. Smith bristles at the exploitation of Seabiscuit, but you don't see it - you sense a heavy edit job. Seabiscuit goes from local sensation to superstar abruptly, but the film's sincerity is unstoppably affecting. Even when you know the results, you can't help get that surge of misty-eyed, lump-in-your-throat elation. Maybe Seabiscuit's story is so good it doesn't need a gutsy telling. Because this timid but comfortable adaptation works despite itself, and you don't throw away a whole movie just because it's banged up a little.



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