Gary Ross Turns Perfect Truth into Middling Fiction in Seabiscuit
The story, as real ones often do, had everything. The setting: the Great Depression, the most cinematic of civic calamities. The theme: triumph over adversity. The cast of characters: an empty-hearted millionaire recovering from the death of his young son; a cowboy too sensitive to live in the world of man; an athlete who raced horses by day and boxed thugs for money at night; and a horse so lame, lazy, and wild that, as a colt, it was actually trained to lose, so that the more promising horses would gain confidence on the track. Nobody could dream up a story like this, and nobody had to. The story of Seabiscuit, the most celebrated racehorse of the 20th century, and the men who made him who he was, literally wrote itself. But for the purposes of Hollywood, the real story was apparently not enough.
By the time writer/director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) set out to make what would become the overwrought melodrama that is Seabiscuit, the heavy lifting had already been done. Sportswriter Laura Hillenbrand realized the full potential of the story in 2001's Seabiscuit: An American Legend, a book that in the hands of a lesser writer would have been merely a biography of a horse; Hillenbrand had the good sense to develop it as an intensely human drama. But even with this foundation, Ross' Seabiscuit exhausts the book's natural poetry, sentimentalizing its inherent tenderness and laboring Hillenbrand's key motif--that this story of unlikely champions can only be understood in the context of the Depression, when everyone was looking for an underdog to root for--until it seems like just another Hollywood cliché.
The actors do what they can to keep the once-real men they play from coming off like stock types. Jeff Bridges submits his affable nice-guy formula as Charles Howard, the automobile magnate who turns to horses after losing his son in a car crash ("I wouldn't spend 5 dollars on a horse," he says early on, in one of the film's many spotlit moments of irony). Chris Cooper, late of his Oscar-winning turn as Adaptation's redneck orchid hunter, does his understated best as Tom Smith, the hermetic horse trainer ("You can't throw away a life just because it's been banged up a little bit," he says, in another motif that reappears). And Tobey Maguire brings heat to the role of Red Pollard, the young jockey/boxer whose generalized anger brings him to the point of sociopathy; but not a square inch of scenery gets chewed, and Maguire, with his mopey eyes and weak chin, exudes that air of ineluctable vulnerability that helps leaven the rage.
But what the cast accomplishes is in spite of the film, rather than because of it. At times they struggle almost visibly with the movie's baroque storytelling, trying to decide when to restrain themselves, when to pour it on a little more, because Seabiscuit contains so many emotional swells and mini-climaxes that they, like the audience, have to pace themselves. Together, we're all trapped in a two-hour-plus-long exercise in gilding the lily.
You don't even see the horse until about 40 minutes in, because Ross first wants to unspool each character's complete backstory; so we sit through Bridges working in a bike shop in the late 1800s; then Cooper in a traveling rodeo; then the entire sad tale of young Red Pollard (Michael Angarano) being abandoned by his parents. Then there are all of the cutaway scenes that reinforce abundantly obvious themes: In one, Cooper strolls over to a ranch fence and thumbs its barbed wire (he's sad because the frontier is closing). In others, old Red suffers through flashbacks of young Red with his family (because he loved them, and he's sad, too). Then there are those baffling points at which Ross stops the action to insert documentary scenes. About a half-dozen times, the story idles while Ross pans over black-and-white photos, the music swells, and brief history lessons on the automobile, the Crash of '29, and the New Deal are narrated by none other than historian David McCullough, the dulcet voice of Ken Burns' The Civil War documentary. It's bad enough that these bits rip off Burns' work, but by the time Seabiscuit reaches its actual, organic climax, all of these sybaritic sidelines have plucked every heartstring threadbare.
What vaulted Seabiscuit to fame was the grand, imagination-capturing match-race between him--runtish, awkward, Western-bred--and War Admiral--huge, hulking, Eastern. The race took place here at Pimlico in 1938, and it was such a crucial event in popular culture that even FDR was said to have kept his advisers waiting while he listened to the finish on the radio. But by the time Seabiscuit finally winds around to the race, sentimentality has been so overprimed that there's not a lick of suspense about what's going to happen. Instead of being the heart-racing drama it actually was, it's just another sports movie--National Velvet crossbred with The Natural, with a strain of The Mighty Ducks thrown in. Indeed, so much about Seabiscuit is so predictable that even this true story--the one so few people today know anything about--seems like an accomplished fact before the opening credits are through. Like the history it chases after, it's as if it was over before it began.