- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

The new movie “Seabiscuit” has been the subject of a high-powered publicity campaign designed to ensure no citizen can escape its reach. Local events have included a showing at the White House and a charity viewing last week for the benefit of the CFIDS Association of America, which works to conquer chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome.

As you surely know, Washington author Laura Hillenbrand suffers from the disease, for which there is no known cause or cure. She wrote her award-winning book, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” practically a word at a time over four years, often unable to get out of bed or stand because of extreme fatigue and vertigo.

Hillenbrand’s perseverance echoes that of the smallish, knobby-kneed racehorse of the 1930s and the three men who survived personal tragedy to guide him: jockey Red Pollard (played in the film by Tobey Maguire), owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) and trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper).

Did I mention the Depression, the exsistence and effects of which are a large part of the movie? And the overly dramatic score by Randy Newman that never fails to tell us — in fact, hit us over the head — that a Big Moment is happening?

It adds up to a large dose of pluck and pathos that would have been labeled a three-hankie weeper by critics of Seabiscuit’s own era. To swallow this story, you have to accept the premise that the horse’s trials and tribulations made him a better representative of the turbulent ‘30s than any human or institution.

It’s all as corny and manipulative as it can be.

And guess what? I loved every one of the movie’s 132 minutes.

For two years, I avoided reading Hillenbrand’s book because I don’t give a used feedbag for horses or horse racing. But when I bought the paperback version a couple of months ago, I fell in love with it — and this was before I knew much about Hillenbrand’s illness, which she relates briefly in an author’s note at the end.

Now this marvelously talented and sadly afflicted woman is going to make millions off the book and movie, but which of us would willingly change places with her? As CFIDS chairman Jonathan Sterling said while introducing the film at the District’s Mazza Gallerie VII theater, the illness “is like the worst case of flu you’ve ever had, except that it never goes away.” According to the association, 800,000 Americans suffer from the disease.

The film sticks pretty closely to the book’s theme, which makes it much more accurate than “The Story of Seabiscuit,” the largely fictional 1949 barn-burner starring an adult Shirley Temple with red (!) hair and a ludicrous Irish accent. Does the current opus get to its audience? Well, at the Mazza Gallerie showing, an audience of 500 cheered Seabiscuit’s cinematic triumphs as much as any railbirds and applauded long and loud when the movie ended. You won’t see reactions like that at, say, “Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines” unless the crowd is a bucket of bolts rooting for the machines and special effects.

“Seabiscuit” is likely to dump all but the most skeptical viewer into a vale of tears and cheers. In a way, it’s reminiscent of “Remember the Titans,” the hokey vehicle of several years ago that had Denzel Washington beating the pants off All Adversity as football coach at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School.

But there’s nothing wrong with a feel-good film, especially in an age when so much of what we encounter makes us feel bad. During the Depression years, movies were a form of air-conditioned escapism for millions of Americans who couldn’t afford much more than the 25 cents required to get in. Even today, when it can cost $9 to attend a first-run flick, the price is well worth it — especially when William H. Macy is on screen as a smarmy radio reporter. If a human could steal this picture, Macy would be the one.

Maybe you go to the movies to see people getting blown up, cheated and otherwise made miserable. I’d rather see upbeat stuff — and “Seabiscuit” certainly fills the bill.

Go see it, even if you don’t know a colt from a dolt — chances are you’ll love it as much as I did. Then read the book.

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