Sunday, March 18, 2012

100 Movies - No. 79: Seabiscuit

79. Seabiscuit (2003)
Drama, History, Sport, 140 minutes
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper

You're probably rolling your eyes and wondering why I think a movie about horse racing is worth including in my 100 movies series. I understand that it doesn't sound very interesting. I wasn't really expecting much when I first saw Seabiscuit, but it's an incredible movie.

The story begins by showing the American dream. Henry Ford is building cars and inventing the assembly line. It appears that prosperity is something everyone can achieve and optimism is high. Then, the depression hits. Where people once owned cars for pleasure and convenience, for some, their car may be their only remaining possession.

Charles Howard (Bridges) is a man who started with 21 cents in his pocket and turned it into what most would consider a successful business. He owns a big house and his wife and son seem to be happy. That changes in an instant the day his young son decides to take the car for a spin and ends up being killed in the resulting crash. Howard's wife leaves and he's left behind to rebuild his life.

This is the story of unlikely success and second chances. Howard finds new love when he encounters Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) and eventually remarries. He also decides to invest in a horse. His trainer is Tom Smith (Cooper), who has been written off as crazy by most people. His jockey is Red Pollard (Maguire), who has a temper, a history of losing, and has never been considered good at what he does. Howard spends $2,000 on Seabiscuit. The horse has good breeding, but is undersized, apparently lazy, and not likely to become a winner.

Each of these damaged characters gets a second chance in life. We see Smith training Seabiscuit. The horse is unruly and will only let Pollard ride him. Howard knows nothing about racing, but he's a loyal owner and believes in his team of misfits.

As you can see, there's nothing remarkable about the story so far. But something makes us root for Seabiscuit. The race sequences place the viewer right among the action. It looks and sounds so real that you'll feel as if you are riding one of the horses.

The live action is broken up occasionally with black and white photographs depicting people who grew up in this era. It made me think of people no longer with us. They all had lives, hopes and dreams. You can see some of that optimism in their smiles.

The film is good at a making you reflect on the past. One major story thread involves Howard's attempts to set up a match race with Triple Crown winner War Admiral. People desperately want to see the two meet, but War Admiral's owner is against the idea and doesn't consider the challenge worthy.

The film leaves out a lot of historical details and focuses on a few races rather than Seabiscuit's entire career. As a result, some of the events did not occur exactly as suggested. But it doesn't ruin the story if you watch it without knowing the full history.

I won't reveal any more of the plot. The acting is very good, as you would expect from actors of this quality. Bridges and Cooper are particularly effective. If you avoid films about animals because you don't like to see them get hurt, no horses die at any point. Two suffer injuries, but it's essential to the plot and ends happily.

Seabiscuit captured the nation's imagination in the 1930s and represented hope when people needed it most. The story is inspirational and is one of the best sports films I've seen. Any Oscar hopes were crushed by Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but it was nominated in seven categories.

If you like Seabiscuit:

It's rare to see a good movie about horse racing. The closest in feel is Secretariat, starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich, but it doesn't reach the high standards set by Seabiscuit.

Director Gary Ross worked with Maguire on Pleasantville and directs the highly-anticipated The Hunger Games.

Other good sports movies include The Blind Side and The Express, if you have any interest in football. Both are based on a true story and explore the characters involved very thoroughly.

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  1. Nice review. Haven't seen Seabiscuit (even though I love the cast) but I love Ross for making Pleasantville, one of my top 5 favorite movies. I'm hoping The Hunger Games is another great one.

  2. Yep, it doesn't sound like much, but it's a very watchable movie.