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Seabiscuit

There's something about Seabiscuit (2003) that just screams "Oscar contender." Not that that's a bad thing, mind you — most films in the hunt for Hollywood hardware have several commendable virtues, including a strong cast, a good sense of character and story, solid production values, and a nice, glossy sheen. But Seabiscuit also falls into the same traps as its peers: It serves up its share of mawkish melodrama, and it runs a bit longer than necessary. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, writer/director Gary Ross's horse-racing epic concerns the legendary Depression-era mount Seabiscuit, and the three men whose lives intersect with this one unusual horse. Automotive entrepreneur Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) has made a small fortune from the pre-Depression boom, but has since fallen on hard times, particularly after the death of his young son. Horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) has endured the decline of the western frontier in the face of industrial expansion, but he still cares for his horses, particularly those that other people think are worth little more than a bullet. Young jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) is virtually abandoned by his impoverished parents at a racetrack, where they believe he stands the best chance of making a life for himself. It's when Howard hires Smith to help him invest in a horse that the old trainer makes two unlikely choices: Selecting the small 15-hand Seabiscuit, and the equally temperamental Pollard as his jockey. The historical quality of Seabiscuit is underscored not just by the source-book and director Ross's screenplay, but also by the use of David McCullough as an intermittent narrator. McCullough's well-known, avuncular drawl is so hypnotic, and so authoritative, that were he to ever record the line "In 1917, the American government launched its first manned mission to Saturn," it might take a second or two to fully realize he's tugging our chain. And it's the fact that so much of this film is accurate that lends to its general appeal — those who lived through the Great Depression needed more than stories and myths, they needed an underdog horse like Seabiscuit to root for, and the country became fully enraptured by his repeated successes. This 2003 effort isn't the first time the larger-than-life tale has been committed to film either. In addition to a documentary produced by owner Howard in 1939, a modest 1956 movie starring Shirley Temple also featured the famous steed. But 2003's Seabiscuit will rank among the great equine pictures for some time, in particular for its inventive cinematography that captures not only the action on the track, but the interaction of the jockeys who fly along the rail at 40 mph. The early parts of the screenplay do a remarkable job of humanizing Seabiscuit — an overlooked grandson of the legendary Man-O-War, his neglect and abuse make him a perfect match for the equally abandoned Pollard. All three main characters, in fact, represent displaced souls who are lost during a time of social upheaval, and Maguire, Bridges, and Cooper bring their own distinct acting styles to a deeply personal story about two fathers and one son who find they must form an ad hoc familial unit. Unfortunately, the character of Seabiscuit fades during the latter parts of the story, and while it likely would have been difficult to make the entire film about one horse's personal journey (not to mention the fact that, like so many Lassies, ten horses were used in the production), it's the initial scenes between Seabiscuit and his new stakeholders that contain the greatest thematic resonance. The final hour, while still in line with history, suffers primarily from repetition — with at least three climactic moments in this 2:20 spin, it seems there's at least one too many "stand-up-and-cheer" Oscar moments. Universal's DVD release of Seabiscuit contains a flawless anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Steven Soderbergh interviews director Gary Ross on an engaging commentary track that includes a nice feature — Ross stops the film at times to expand on certain points, while stills of the film, and even Ross and Soderbergh in the recording booth, play on-screen. Other supplements include a "making-of" featurette (15 min.) an "Anatomy of a Movie Moment" with comments from Ross (5 min.), the featurette "Seabiscuit: Racing Through History" with documentary footage and comments from McCullough and others (15 min.), a look at Jeff Bridges' on-set photos (5 min.), promo materials, cast and crew notes, and production notes. Keep-case.
—JJB



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