In the late 1930s America made the racehorse Seabiscuit a national hero, an icon of fame and success, worthy not only of bets but of great emotion, of love and admiration and identification, while the horse itself simply ran to win because that's what thoroughbreds are bred to do. The reason, of course, is that America was desperate for something - anything - that could exemplify its fantasies of somehow striking it rich, of becoming a winner instead of a loser, even of simply surviving to live another day. The country was paralyzed by the power of the Great Depression, with 25 percent unemployment, millions of uprooted families wandering the country, the dream of capitalist prosperity for all a joke, and even death from malnutrition not uncommon. At the same time, though, the New Deal was beginning to take effect and starvation was not so near a fate; there was some light at the end of one's tunnel.
Laura Hillenbrand's remarkable book "Seabiscuit," from which this film was made, dealt frankly and movingly with the stories of the three men who, along with their horse, were transmuted by the time and by their own acts into American icons. The writer and director Gary Ross came to this film with a most quirky record: he wrote "Big" and "Dave" and then wrote and directed "Pleasantville." It's fascinating to me that the producers would have chosen a man with such a record for "Seabiscuit." But unexpectedly he has forsaken that quirkiness completely, and told the story of the men and their horse in a very conventional, straightforward manner here. In fact there's a ponderous weight to his direction and pacing that keeps the film from being the classic it might have been. The historian David McCullough narrates the early part of the film as a kind of history of the early 20th century, using many of the Farm Security Administration's powerful photos as illustrations. It sets the story of the horse and his men in context.
But quickly the film focuses on the men, and they themselves are so worthwhile, so touching in their lives and their relationship to each other and to their precious thoroughbred, that we are enraptured as we watch them. Ross has assembled three actors who in their styles and approach stand at the three corners of an equilateral triangle. Tobey Maguire is Red Pollard, skinny jockey and ex-smalltown boxer, abandoned by his Canadian parents as a teenager, fighting his way through the bull ring tracks and then to the bigger races and payoffs at Tijuana's Agua Caliente before getting back to California's Tanforan in the Bay Area. Insecure, carrying too much weight because of his height, but a natural rider, Maguire's Pollard is the hard-luck/good-luck/hard-luck centerpiece of the film. Chris Cooper, who seems able to transform himself into entirely different people with every film he makes - think "American Beauty"'s Colonel Frank Fitts and "Adaptation"'s John Laroche - is Seabiscuit's trainer Tom Smith, a man who can barely relate to other human beings but finds a way into the mind and heart of a race horse. And Jeff Bridges is the ebullient Charles Howard, a millionaire car dealer in San Francisco, who buys Seabiscuit almost on a lark, when Smith spots him.
And the horse itself is a piece of work: ridden hard as a two-year-old, mistreated by his previous trainers, small and ungainly, he seems the very worst bargain. But with Smith training him and Pollard riding him he starts winning stakes races up and down the California circuit. He became the people's horse, and maybe that should be capitalized: the People's Horse - because so many Americans saw something of their own stories in his. And ultimately Howard challenged the owner of the great East Coast Triple Crown winner War Admiral to a stakes race. That race, and the events before and after it, are the climax of the film.
There's a great deal to see, to admire, to love, and even to cry at in this film; the racing scenes are beautifully shot and edited for excitement and drama. But let me particularly urge you to watch Chris Cooper, who gives one of the great, understated but mesmerizing performances in all of film. He has made himself ugly and uninteresting to look at, and yet we cannot help but follow everything he says and every gesture he makes. Coming off of his sexy, sly, seductive Laroche in "Adaptation" this performance is beyond praise. But Maguire and Bridges are perfectly matched to balance him, and each of them is superb. The Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens plays Pollard's friend and rival George Woolf, and he handles himself well enough to find good work in Hollywood if he should retire from racing.
There is an odd character added in the film, perhaps for a kind of quirky comic relief. He is a racing commentator on radio, and his name is Tick-Tock McGlaughlin. He's played by William H. Macy as though he stepped right out of a Coen brothers film, and his scenes are just off-balance enough to skew things into another dimension whenever the film threatens to bog itself down in exposition. All in all a fine film, a bit short of greatness but with some magnificent qualities; just like Seabiscuit.