A horse, of course. Great performances enhance an occasionally turgid tale of restoring hope.
A film set during America's Great Depression concerning horse racing isn't the kind of film that would initially appeal to me. The odds on anything exploding are long and I wouldn't bet on any boobies being on display. As it's set in America there wouldn't even be the chance to see John McCririck's amusing deerstalker on his outlandishly sideburned bonce. In fact, it's hard to think of exactly who this film would appeal to. The American box office would seem to support this, eventually limping over the $100 million line to a respectable $120-ish million which suddenly looks a lot less respectable set against its insane $86 million budget.
It might not be lifting any cups for its box office performance but it certainly one that the critics were fond of. Poor reviews of this film are as rare as Shergar. With that said I'll make a conscious effort to reign in the horse based puns before I'm put down. Still, it would seem that if you wander in from the cold, cold streets and give this dramatisation of true events a chance, you'll find you'll probably enjoy it. It's not without flaws and it's overlong for what it intends to achieve, but for the most part it has a blend of decent to great acting with some well handled racing action that blends historical aspects and pure entertainment in a way that ought to have History teachers everywhere slapping their foreheads saying "that's how you do it".
Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) heads out to the now-not-quite-so-wild west to make his fortune opening a bicycle showroom, only to wind up developing a knack for hotrodding these so-called horseless carriages. He goes into business an makes a bundle, to the delight of his wife and son. Happiness is fleeting, and although he survives the stock market crash without loosing too heavily he suffers a more devastating loss as his son is killed in a car crash. His wife leaves him for reasons never particularly dwelt on and his friends decide to take his mind off things by going for a drink. During the Prohibition in America having a quiet pint down the local involved upping sticks over the border to Mexico.
Drink, hookers and gambling flowed readily for those with the cash to pay for it. Others have to earn their keep such as Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), now a journeyman jockey and bareknuckle boxer after being rather swiftly given away by his loving parents once they loose their shirts in the crash. Thinking it the best chance to provide a comfortable life for Red, he's taken in by what seems to be a travelling racecourse. He eventually finds himself jockeying down South along with his friend and rival George Woolf (Gary Stevens). The ways thing shake out leave him decidedly angry at the world in general.
The downturn effects nearly every occupation, even softly spoken cowboy Tom Smith (Chris Cooper). Winding up over the border as well, he catches Howard's eye saving a wounded horse from being put down, calming it with his horse whisperer like techniques and applying a healing poultice. Very old school / new age. Howard decides he would be the ideal trainer for his latest scheme after ditching the automobile trade, entering the fascinating world of horse racing. His new found enthusiasm for life comes hand in hand with his new found wife Marcela (Elizabeth Banks). Eventually finding a horse Smith declares suitably fire-filled and ready to win they buy Seabiscuit, a horse rejected by everyone else, seemingly born to lose and considered too angry at the world in general to be broken. They decide to give him a second chance and it pays off in spades.
Tom realises a crazy man must be found to ride a crazy horse, and notices Red's similar temperament in a wonderfully realised double take. With the team now assembled, they begin their task of creating the best racehorse in the land and taking on the current incumbent of the title, War Admiral owned by a wealthy conservative industrialist Samuel Riddle. This hulking horse would seem to be unbeatable, substantially larger, faster and more powerful, the Darth Vader of the Eastern racing scene. With Howard mounting a national campaign to pressure Riddle into granting a prize race the story takes up a greater meaning as imparted by a narrator. Seabiscuit become a symbol of hope for the 'little men', their lives thrown into disarray by the industrial collapse, trying to rebuild themselves and their country. Latching onto the story, the press (here memorably represented by the enthusiastic Tick Tock McGlaughlin, William H. Macy in another show stealing bit part that reaffirms his status as Best Supporting Actor Of All Time Ever In The History Of The World) ensure that the Seabiscuit / War Admiral feud becomes a phenomenon that reaffirms a countries faith in The American Way.
The trials and tribulations the team goes through is little short of remarkable and all the more so given that they are, for the most part historically accurate. Arguably its cynically jerking strings to have it feel as inspirational as possible but it's done with such a sense of grandeur and technical excellence that I'm willing to go along with it. There are a few crucial mis-steps which stop it having the true awe inspiring feeling you're left with after the end of say, The Shawshank Redemption but it's still a very positive cinematic experience. The main reason anchoring it from being a truly uplifting experience is a somewhat stoic approach to the subject matter. Everything is taken rather matter-of-factly, which has the dual effect of making it feel more of a weighty documentary but saps some of the joy and exuberance from a tale that seems to desperately want to laugh more than it does. The few scenes of a more light hearted nature will stand out as it's memorable moments and perhaps the trade off has been weighted slightly too far in the weighty direction.
Technically it's close to flawless. Everything drips of 30's America and the production design team ought to be well pleased with their achievement. No doubt 'oldifying' everything consumed a fair whack of that ridiculous budget but the results speak for themselves. The racing scenes are similarly breathtaking, producing a real sensation of speed that is probably more effective than in any recent big budget action flick. This goes some way to negate the occasionally stodgy and overwrought narrative but can't hide the fact that the film could use a good quarter of an hour trim.
Maguire does a decent job as the fiery jockey, and it's his character that develops and matures more than any other. A few moments are on the verge of developing into daytime soap opera style histrionics but never quite tipping down it. Whether he only seems average due to the presence of such admirable co-stars is open for debate but it's a strong possibility. Jeff Bridges brings with him the laid back reassurance of The Big Lebowski and an earnest dignity that makes him a strong, identifiable character that you can't help but root for on some level. It's Chris Cooper that walks away with the majority of the plaudits though, his brand of homespun wisdom and values proving to be oddly affecting without ever being preachy. For such a seemingly serious character he gets a few understated but amusing oneliners into proceedings. He's as much the soul of the film as Maguire the passion and Bridges the intellect, the results a triumph of character acting in a time of vapid CGI setpieces.
It's U.K. release timing is unfortunate, going up against the marginally better Mystic River for the drama crowd money and both are likely to be wiped off the face of the earth by the unstoppable Matrix Revolutions juggernaut, but it would be a crying shame if this were to be buried. There are precious few good dramas released by the big Hollywood players and for once it's good to be applauding them rather than throwing rotten fruit. If you can get past the social stigma of going to see a movie about horse racing then you'll find an utterly enjoyable drama with great acting and even some decent action. Sounds more like a film that would appeal to you now, doesn't it?
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Chris Cooper (Tom Smith)
Tobey Maguire (Red Pollard)
Elizabeth Banks (Marcela Howard)
Valerie Mahaffey (Annie Howard)
Tobey Maguire (Red Pollard)
Gary Stevens (George Woolf)
William H. Macy (Tick Tock McGlaughlin)