Directed by Gary Ross. USA. 2003.

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I like anomalies, the things in life that do not fit, the assumptions that can be overturned. That is why I often root for the underdog in sports and why I am drawn to films like Seabiscuit, a film about a horse with a fighting spirit that brought three unlikely friends together to pick up the pieces of their lives. Written and directed by Gary Ross and based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand, the film chronicles the career of  Seabiscuit, the racehorse who rose from obscurity to capture the hearts of millions of Depression-weary Americans during the 1930s. I didn't go into the theatre expecting a great movie and I didn't get one, but I did get what I wanted -- outstanding performances, an involving story, and a moving message about second chances in life. 

As the film opens, the lives of owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) are introduced. Howard is a bicycle shop owner in California who becomes the owner of the largest Buick dealership in the West. A family tragedy and a subsequent divorce, however, leave him without the will to go on. Tom Smith is a laconic ex-cowboy and trainer who has a unique way with horses. The third piece to the puzzle is part-time jockey and prize fighter John "Red".  As an adolescent, Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is cut off from his family in Canada and forced to make his way as a journeyman jockey and boxer. The director explains, ôRed lost his family, Howard lost a son and Smith lost his way of life. How do you transcend that kind of pain, overcome the grief?" By the second hour, they have come together to play out their joint destiny.

Pollard conceals his blindness in one eye to ride a small colt named Seabiscuit, bought in Mexico by Howard with Smith's guidance. The horse is a grandson of the great Man 'O War but is considered lazy and difficult to manage. Under Smith's training and Pollard's assistance, the horse begins to realize his potential. Seabiscuit goes on to run in the Santa Anita Derby three times as well as competing in a match race with the Triple Crown winner War Admiral, owned by a wealthy eastern aristocrat. This is the race that captured people's imagination and allowed them to root for the democratic choice, the underdog like themselves. The camerawork makes us feel as if we are part of the action, riding along with the jockeys, listening to the thundering hooves. 

While Seabiscuit is genuinely crowd-pleasing entertainment and I truly enjoyed it, it falls short of the greatness some critics claim for it. The characters lack dimension and the film takes too many liberties with the facts, for example, Smith had been working with racehorses for many years and Pollard had won 53 races on 300 mounts before Seabiscuit. Also, the film's feel-good messages such as "relief made men feel like men again" sound hollow after numerous repetition. Perhaps the wasteland of contemporary Hollywood cinema has made us grasp onto anything that is a cut above the average, but I feel that it has been over-praised. Yet Seabiscuit does give us something to cheer about and, with outstanding performances from the three leads and an off-the-wall comic performance by William H. Macy as radio announcer Tick-Tock McGlaughlin, it crosses the finish line far ahead of the summer pack. 

Howard Schumann
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