In this summer of sequel glut and computer-enhanced mayhem, Seabiscuit is a risky example of counterprogramming that just may lure an audience because it's so refreshingly unlike the competition. Based on Laura Hillenbrand's 2001 best-seller (which continues to top the paperback lists), this is old-fashioned, inspirational Americana on a grand scale--an amazing Depression-era true story with strong appeal for older audiences who have little interest in nubile Angels or soulless Terminators. A little too earnest for its own good, Seabiscuit is nonetheless an admirable effort boasting marvelous movie craft and solid performances.
The title notwithstanding, Seabiscuit is as much the story of a trio of disparate men as it is the tale of the legendary racehorse that thrilled America in the late 1930s. Director Gary Ross' screenplay initially follows the parallel tracks of Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a highly successful Buick car dealer whose life is devastated when his young son is killed in an auto accident and his marriage crumbles; Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a solitary, taciturn cowboy with a special affinity for horses; and John Pollard (Michael Angarano, followed by Tobey Maguire), a young man abandoned by his once-prosperous family to eke out a living by competing in horse races. Howard is revitalized when he meets and marries a beautiful young woman named Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), and the newlyweds impulsively decide to buy a horse. Smith, hired by Howard as a trainer, champions an unlikely prospect: an abused, temperamental, undersized steed named Seabiscuit. The horse may be a hellion, but Smith likes his attitude. The open-minded Howard trusts Smith's instincts, and somehow concludes that the equally pugnacious jockey Pollard would be a good match for his new acquisition.
Before long, the trio are astonished by just how spirited Seabiscuit really is; the bay breaks the local track record and is soon racking up a series of victories and capturing the imagination of the American public as a metaphorical underdog from the working class. Howard orchestrates more publicity when he challenges patrician horse owner Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones) to a match race between Seabiscuit and Riddle's imposing 1937 Triple Crown winner, War Admiral. Complicating matters is the fact that jockey Pollard is blind in one eye from the amateur boxing matches he once entered for much-needed cash. In the final leg of the story, Seabiscuit and Pollard each suffer traumatic injuries, but the determination of both horse and rider climaxes in a remarkable comeback.
With narration by historian David McCullough, Ross' film strives to put the story of Seabiscuit in a social context and give contemporary audiences a mini-lesson on the impact of the Great Depression. And, at times, Seabiscuit feels like a movie made in that era, with cheerful homilies like "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little" and "When the little guy doesn't know he's a little guy, he can do big things." Bringing much-needed comic relief amidst all this uplift is William H. Macy as cheesy fictional radio commentator "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin. (When Seabiscuit and Pollard both return from the injured list, he exclaims, "Who's next? Lazarus?")
In his first film since Spider-Man, a red-haired Maguire is natural and appealing as the often hard-luck Pollard. Bridges makes a warm and gentle Howard, and Oscar winner Cooper is understatedly effective as trainer Smith. Real-life jockey Gary Stevens makes a charismatic, confident movie debut as Pollard's friendly rival, George Woolf.
Though sincere to a fault, Seabiscuit boasts meticulous craft, from John Schwartzman's handsome widescreen photography to Jeannine Oppewall's attentive production design and Judianna Makovsky's smart costumes. The races are filmed with intimate excitement, and Ross' storytelling is often economical--watch the visual shorthand he uses to depict the death of Howard's son. At the least, Seabiscuit is one of the summer's more beautifully groomed movies, and should be a winning ticket with audiences primed for feel-good nostalgia.