Galloping virtually alone in the adult-interest lane among too many comic-book movies and teen-geek fantasies, Seabiscuit the movie is as much an underdog this summer as Seabiscuit the horse was during the Depression. For about 40 minutes, Gary Ross’s adaptation of the Laura Hillenbrand bestseller feels a bit unfocused and awkward. Its three human leads — auto seller Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who owns Seabiscuit; trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), who gentles the horse into a contender; and failed boxer Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who becomes Seabiscuit’s jockey — are introduced separately, and it takes a while for all three to get together. While we wait, narrator David McCullough makes the damn thing sound like one of the more earnestly journalistic PBS documentaries.
When the men unite around the horse, though, Seabiscuit gains power and depth. Seabiscuit, who famously got more newspaper ink in 1938 than FDR and Hitler, is positioned as the rejuvenating soul of a sick nation — a long-odds hoss who surprises everyone and surges to greatness. Ross tells the story with a minimum of schmaltz, though he can’t resist some pieties in the dialogue, as if he didn’t trust the combined magic of editor William Goldenberg and cinematographer John Schwartzman to create poetry in motion. The racing sequences are unflashy yet exhilarating, generating old-school excitement without techno music or CGI. We know the odds, we know what’s at stake, and we’re given a God’s-eye view of the races. Seabiscuit could’ve worked just as well — maybe even better — as a silent movie; in its modest way it re-introduces pure cinema to a summer full of bloat and hype.
Exquisitely cast, the movie focuses more on the embattled men at its center than on the titular champion. Jeff Bridges gives his lines an air of fatuous hucksterism — he’s glib, a salesman for Seabiscuit as well as for cars — but Bridges’ essential decency also comes through, as when he frets about the injured horse and his injured jockey going through with the climactic race. Chris Cooper will likely never be plausible as, say, an office manager or web designer, but he has perfected his piece of the Laconic Man of Nature turf; a man of very few words, Tom Smith (nicknamed “Silent Tom” back in the day) has to speak volumes with subtle eye shifts or grudging smiles, and Cooper is more than up to the challenge. Tobey Maguire risks making Red Pollard somewhat unstable and hot-headed, a realistically beaten-down young man whose very presence seems to calm the frightened, abused Seabiscuit, as if the horse had finally found his soulmate.
As he showed in 1998’s now-and-then fantasy Pleasantville, Gary Ross has a gentle eye for time-capsule stories; the period of the late ’30s is effortlessly evoked — the whistlestop speeches, the men in straw hats, the effusive radio announcers (William H. Macy has fun as the fictional “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin, who uses clownish sound effects to augment his rhapsodies to the equine champion). Seabiscuit may have been largely a media hero (his tale inspired an earlier film, 1949’s The Story of Seabiscuit with Shirley Temple), but his legend was hard-won. The movie’s glowing reviews — which fairly sigh with relief at the respite from overkill like Bad Boys II — are earned, too. Seabiscuit is not a work of great art, but it tells its solid story with grace and dignity.