For those who feel dubious about seeing a plucky animal film, be assured that there’s plenty of human suffering here before the main character, who happens to be a horse, even shows up. Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), rises from a humble bicycle repair shop owner in 1910 to a self-made millionaire industrialist some 20 years later; he loses his young son in a car accident and his wife soon after. The man who will become the horse’s trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), is an introspective loner who feels that his main chance at doing something meaningful in his life has passed him by. The jockey who will ride Seabiscuit to fame, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), has been displaced from his middle-class home by the Depression, reduced to making a living as a boxer, which he seems to have no talent for.
Written and directed by Gary Ross — a former Clinton speech writer whose previous films were the liberal fantasy Dave (1993) and the somewhat less obvious lib daydream Pleasantville (1998) — Seabiscuit is an unabashed left-populist allegory, though not as heavy-handed as it could have been. When narrator David McCullough (who added a similar gravitas to Ken Burns’ PBS series “The Civil War”) intones over a quick shot of FDR that “for the first time somebody cared,” it’s not to make an explicit connection between the New Deal programs and the twists of fate that give characters here their remarkable second and third chances, it’s just putting Seabiscuit’s enormous popularity in its historical context. Seabiscuit and his human attendants achieve their goals against overwhelming odds, and it seems like a story that the zeitgeist might have willed into existence.
Bridges is a long way from his role as the Dude in The Big Lebowski here. He and Cooper are convincing as quiet sufferers who remain low-keyed optimists. Maguire is ably intense as the hard-luck Pollard, but William H. Macy, as a comic relief radio broadcaster, tries to be funny too desperately. Yet overall the cliches are muted, and for once an extended running time — 2 hours and 20 minutes — seems justified, necessary to tell the unbelievable but true final act. It’s an old-fashioned movie, thought the racing scenes are shot in close and are state of the art, but a ripping yarn all the same.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].