ARTS

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August 22, 2003

Snapshot shows Seabiscuit wins by a leg

"In 1938, a year of monumental turmoil, the number one newsmaker wasn't Franklin Roosevelt or Adolf Hitler. It wasn't even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse, owned by a bicycle repairman-turned-automobile magnate, trained by a virtually mute mustang breaker, and ridden by a half-blind failed prizefighter. The Horse was Seabiscuit, and this is his story." So begins Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, on which the Universal Studios flick was based.

The feel good story of Seabiscuit is so amazing that it's hard to believe the events took place in the 30's instead of on a made-for-T.V. movie. The story starts with a freshly remarried Charles Howard, former car salesman tycoon played by Jeff Bridges, who is spurred by his new wife to invest his time and money into horseracing. Along the way, he hires Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire), and eventually the horse Seabiscuit (played by many similarly colored horses). The movie progresses as each of the characters' best traits shine through despite the odds against them. Howard, still wealthy but emotionally broken by the death of his son, is down but not out when he turns his salesman skills into selling Seabiscuit to America (the movie does a good job of explaining just how "the Biscuit" managed to be the #1 newsmaker in 1938). Smith, country bred and isolated, shows that what he fails to understand in people, his ability to understand just what a good horse needs makes up for. Pollard, a 115-pound man who has way too much fight in him than could ever be healthy, proves himself to be a perfect match for Seabiscuit. And Seabiscuit, who was overlooked his whole life for his small size and perceived laziness (forced by former owners to lose races in order to give other horses confidence), shines through as the preeminent example in the argument for whether or not animals have a competitive spirit.

It is ironic that the main problem I had with this movie was not that it was ineffective or unconvincing. Instead, I took issue with just how well the movie built up to a climax and delivered. This climax was so impressive that at the conclusion of Seabiscuit's match (one on one) race against War Admiral, the in-theater-audience broke out into spontaneous applause. Now maybe that's common where you live, but I've never had it happen to me. Unfortunately, this big "finale" came not at the end, but halfway through the movie. When the audience feels that the entire second half the movie is post-climactic, there is a problem. Partly responsible for this glitch is that the 1940 Santa Anita race is over-Hollywoodized. After the horses break from the starting gate, Seabiscuit falls way behind only to perform a comeback in the second half of the race that is not only close to impossible but not historically accurate. Wasn't it enough that the Biscuit and Red only had four good legs between them? Why make it so overly sappy?

Don't get me wrong, Seabiscuit is still well worth the price of admission. Beautifully shot in both Southern California and at the famous Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, the movie has many pluses. The soundtrack is above par, and the main characters' acting is very solid in the main characters, especially Chris Cooper's portrayal of the reserved Smith.