The horse can do 

A review of Seabiscuit

Universal Pictures PG-13

Everyone has a story line they're so enamored with that they'll overlook any number of cinematic misfortunes: Bad acting, heavy-handed direction, even Heather Graham. My friend Emily loves the Jane Austin oeuvre of "Dude, where's my suitor?" My friend David can't pass up films where African-American families endure through good times and bad.

Me, I'm a sucker for the triumphant underdog sports drama. Whether they pander to the lingering racism of the white working class (Rocky), insurgent bourgeois Anglophiles (Chariots of Fire) or Midwestern quarry workers (Breaking Away), the films speak to our irrepressible need for redemption through a struggle that is as much physical as it is spiritual (you know, spiritual in that nonsectarian secular sort of way). So if this is your trope, or if you're just nostalgic for a time when Americans were better dressed, then saddle on up.

In Seabiscuit, three wounded men unite in a Depression-era tale of how a discarded racehorse restored their hope and dignity. Jeff Bridges stars as Charles Howard, a self-made tycoon whose son is killed in a car accident. In typical midlife millionaire fashion, he divorces, remarries the delicious but entirely decorative Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), and heals himself by becoming the Don King of dodgy racehorses.

Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is the eldest son from a San Francisco family decimated in the stock market crash. He's abandoned at a horse farm in his early teens where he learns to race while fighting anything that moves. Last but not least, is Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a Marlboro-man maverick we meet galloping through the purple mountains majesty on the make for wild horses. After meeting Howard, his soft-spoken and incurably honest demeanor secures his spot as Seabiscuit's trainer.

Like the men, Seabiscuit has been wounded: premature separation from his champion mom and jockey roughhousing. Until Smith finds him, the horse was relegated to life as a pacehorse for more promising beasts.

A skeptical Howard buys Biscuit on Smith's advice and Pollard manages to talk his way into the saddle. Herein the film slips into pleasurable clich: gorgeous training scenes culminating in the match of a lifetime against War Admiral, the trophy horse of a blue-blooded Baltimore industrialist. (Note: Every underdog sports film is about the class warfare. In this case, it's new money vs. old.)

The up-from-the-scrap-heap narrative is contrasted with still photos of the Hoovervilles, breadlines and WPA projects of the era. The allegory of Seabiscuit as the hoofed embodiment of the New Deal ethos is shamelessly thumped into our heads via sappy voiceover interludes from presidential biographer David McCullough. (Was Robert Caro busy?)

And so, as the once-ungovernable Seabiscuit learns to trust his keepers, the equine dream team comes to trust each other and by director Gary Ross's logic, a nation is renewed.

That is until Red and Seabiscuit get hurt. A vet deems the horse doomed and offers to put him down. A doctor tells Red he'll never race again and puts him in a cast. But in true underdog movie fashion, the two know they're down but not out.

For comic relief we're treated to William H. Macy as Tick Tock McLaughlin, a slick-talking radio gossip who makes his own side effects while his disenchanted girlfriend reads the paper. He is a grade-A ham and a consistent scene thief.

For all Seabiscuit's populist posturing, it should be noted that women are treated as arm candy and blacks are relegated to nonspeaking stable hands. But if you're prone to a good come-from-behind fight, you'll forgive these flaws. There are simply too many underdogs to root for: horse, man and America. Take your pick.

-- John Dicker


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