Seabiscuit Gary Ross

Seabiscuit Gary Ross
There's a good moment in Seabiscuit — conveniently succinct for TV consumption — where Jeff Bridges puts on his best gee-shucks everyday salesman routine, the one he's pulled off with such aplomb for more than 30 years now, but best known from Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. "Our horse is too small," he tells reporters gathered to collect his pearls of wisdom. "Our jockey is too big. Our trainer is too old and I'm too dumb to know the difference." It's an easy sell — to the reporters seeking a good underdog story in tough times, and for moviegoers looking for air-conditioned relief that doesn't contain the number two and doesn't require earplugs. And while yes, that is what Seabiscuit is about, this lyrical, elegiac, gentle and loving film in fact captures the heart of a time in American history when an underdog horse was exactly what was needed. And that's a much more compelling story than Rocky with hooves.

Based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit follows the Depression era tale of millionaire Charles Howard (Bridges) whose ambition is crippled by the loss of his wife and son. It shares the story of trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a cowboy whose time is passing him by, of a gifted horseman and jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), too big for the thing he's best at, and of Seabiscuit, a horse whose potential no one saw until Howard saw it in all three of these misfits.

In some ways, Seabiscuit is too easy to miss, this unusual hodgepodge of unlikely characters that triumph over adversity in tough times. Based on a true story too — it's the Hollywood Holy Grail. But this is also the hardest of stories to pull off, as the pitfalls of cliché and maudlin sentiment are spread around like so much horse manure for inelegant filmmakers to step in. In the hands of director Gary Ross (Pleasantville), Seabiscuit is a symphony — on one hand capturing the spirited competition of thoroughbred racing, on the other the sense of hope of a dispirited nation, united for the first time through the power of radio, desperately clung to. Ross's deft unspooling of key character moments is careful and subtle; his thematic threads are scarcely visible, like fishing line. This is a remarkable combination of subject, character, cast and execution that's rarely seen in theatres, much less in the heat of summer. (Universal)