Seabiscuit – 2003
I’m going to start this off by saying that there was nothing wrong with this movie. It was well-made, entertaining, and even inspirational at times. The acting was just fine, the sets and costumes were appropriate, the casting was good, and the directing was competent. But unless you really enjoy horse racing, it was a little dull, but only because it was so predictable.
The word of the day is underdog. Who doesn’t enjoy rooting for the underdog? Well, that is all this movie was. Every main character was an underdog. Jeff Bridges played Charles Howard, an incredibly wealthy land-owner in San Francisco around the turn of the century. His only child dies in a terrible accident and his wife leaves him. Toby McGuire played Red Pollard, a young boy with a talent for riding horses whose family was hit hard by the great depression. His parents learn that he can make a living as a horse racing jockey and sell him to a horse trainer. Chris Cooper plays Tom Smith, an old crackpot of a trainer who seems to be a magical horse whisperer.
And then there’s the horse, Seabiscuit. Race horses were supposed to be big and sleek and powerful. But Seabiscuitr was small and thought to be lazy. Nobody ever expected him to amount to anything. But you bring all four of these characters together and you get an unbeatable team. And the moral of the movie was simple. You don’t throw something away just because it has been damaged. You don’t put down an injured race horse, you take the time to work with him to heal him. You don’t discount a jockey with a broken leg. You work with him to heal him. The moral could easily be applied to all four members of the team. Of course, the unofficial fifth member of the team was Mr. Howard’s second wife, Marcela, played by Elizabeth Banks. It was she who began the entire process by getting Charles out of his depression by getting him interested in horse racing.
My problems with the movie were two-fold. As I mentioned, it was predictable. Having never seen the film, I guessed that the plot would go as follows: Poor boy jockey never gets a break. Horse never expected to win a race. The two meet and form a special bond. They train hard and enter the big race. They surprise everybody, proving that they are good enough to go the distance. And I was right. Every one of those things happened. The rest was just details
The second thing was that the film seemed to be anticlimactic. The movie was two hours and twenty minutes long. The first hour was spent establishing the characters, and the next half-hour was training for the big race, a showdown between Seabiscuit and the giant race horse from New York, War Admiral, owned by the arrogant Samuel Riddle, played by Eddie Jones. The next half-hour was spent on the race. In a little surprise twist, Red breaks his leg badly. Another jockey, George Woolf, played by Gary Stevens is found, and Red gives him instructions on how to ride Seabiscuit. Woolf follows the instructions perfectly and Seabiscuit wins!
For me, that was the climax of the movie. They made it exciting to watch. They even showed a few shots of Red listening to the radio broadcast of the race while he is laid up in the hospital with a cast on his leg. They tried to make it unclear as to who would win, but, really, there was no doubt. The little horse that could was the fastest horse on the track. But the movie didn’t end there. After trouncing War Admiral and putting his owner in his place, they go even further to drive the point home that you don’t throw something away just because it is broken.
Seabiscuit is forced to stop in the middle of his next race with an injury. Just as we are told that Red will never be a jockey again, we are also told that Seabiscuit will never race again. But once the two are reunited, they work hard to overcome their injuries. The film’s finale then becomes the Santa Anita races, in which they make their comeback. And did they win? Of course they did. Predictable. And to make it worse, it was shown in slow motion, making the scene so much less exciting than the previous race. And then there was the sappy voice-over that said, “You know, everyone thinks that we found this broken down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way, we kinda fixed each other, too.” I’m sorry, but I had to roll my eyes, just a little. The story would have been so much more inspirational if I thought for just one instant that they might lose.
And as an afterthought, I have to mention one thing that I found really distracting. There were several scenes where the camera focused on close-ups of the jockeys as they were racing, so we could hear the dialogue between the jockeys. Those shots looked incredibly fake because the horse’s heads looked ridiculously mechanical. They moved with a perfectly repetitive and exaggerated up and down motion. My post-viewing research tells me that the machines used for these shots were called Equicizers. But when the close-up cut to a wide shot of the real horses running, I could clearly see that their heads and the jockey’s arms weren’t really moving that much, or at least not in the same way. To me, it just looked painfully obvious.