- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

“Seabiscuit,” director Gary Ross’ sincere but uninspired film adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s richly informative and stirring 2001 best seller, needs about 45 minutes of expository preamble before introducing its title character, the undersized and late-blooming racehorse who thrilled Depression-era America.

Straining to interweave the background stories of its three central characters — the horse’s owner, California automobile mogul Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges); Seabiscuit’s jockey, Red Pollard; and trainer Tom Smith, a former cowboy nicknamed Silent Tom — the film’s preamble plods and then stalls.

Pollard is played by Tobey Maguire and Smith by Chris Cooper, whose embodiment of the intuitive, reticent trainer is the most distinctive and reassuring aspect of the first half of the movie, which carries 134 minutes far more laboriously than Seabiscuit carried prohibitive weights of 130 pounds or more.

There are pick-me-ups, fortunately. The most consistent and effective is William H. Macy in a fictionalized court-jester role, “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin, a radio racing tout who specializes in overexuberance. He also comes in handy to anticipate the major races, notably two editions of the Santa Anita Handicap (a pacesetter at the time in offering a stunning $100,000 in prize money) and the legendary match race at Pimlico.

Unfortunately, Mr. Macy’s comic tour de force as Tick Tock reminds one that Gary Ross’ previous experience has been with comedy: He co-wrote “Big,” wrote “Dave” and made his directing debut with “Pleasantville.” The narrative demands of “Seabiscuit” reveal him as a plodder.

The familiar voice of historian David McCullough is borrowed to lend authority to documentary interludes summarizing American social history from the invention of the Model T to the reforms of the New Deal. Vintage photographs illustrate these passages. I took it for granted that they were setting the stage for a switch to extended newsreel footage of the match race. It was lavishly covered at the time and would seem to defy adequate restaging.

Certainly, it defied the efforts of Mr. Ross, who deflates race fever at the outset by declining to show the first half of the race. Instead, he illustrates it with historical photos of people listening to a radio broadcast. He retrieves the last half with a simulation that gets full value from the quip uttered by jockey George Woolf to rival Charley Kurtsinger when pulling away for a three-length victory: “So long, Charley.” It became a national catchphrase in the aftermath of the race.

Woolf, also a legend in his time, had replaced the injured Pollard, a close professional friend who had invaluable pointers to share. The real-life jockey Gary Stevens doubles for Woolf, but Mr. Ross isn’t able to duplicate Miss Hillenbrand’s finesse at establishing their friendly rivalry — or the entire sporting culture of professional jockeys — in early vignettes.

Mr. Ross’ grasp of characterization becomes as slippery as his sense of spectacle, which is picturesque, at best, when the subject demands a kinetic and dynamic sensibility. There’s a good deal of track simulation, of course, but the vantage points often seem cramped or slack. Only one composition really has a pictorial surge appropriate to its theme: a panorama of fans dashing across the infield to be in position when horses racing in the background reach the backstretch.

There are odd bits of visual illiteracy throughout the movie. For example, one scene isolates the largely decorative Elizabeth Banks as Charles Howard’s wife, Marcela, too nervous about a big race to leave the stable. Suddenly, she dashes to the track and climbs onto a car’s hood to get a vantage point. Mr. Ross leaves out the shot that would confirm that vantage point. Instead, we see an overhead vista of the horses, the point of view of an elevated camera crane.

It’s probably easier to respect the movie if you haven’t read the book. Laura Hillenbrand can marshal more information and human interest in a handful of pages than Gary Ross can digest in an entire movie. Readers will sense this immediately because the film’s introduction to Charles Howard as a pioneering auto dealer omits a pivotal event covered vividly by the book: He was in San Francisco on the day of the 1906 earthquake, and his fleet of three unsold Buicks became indispensable emergency ambulances and supply vehicles during the calamity.

Despite being the toast of Hollywood in his prime (another neglected angle), Seabiscuit remains a jinxed object of Hollywood solicitude. He was shortchanged in a woeful 1950 biopic. Now a superior literary tribute has failed to result in a classic movie.

**

TITLE: “Seabiscuit”

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting graphic violence and profanity; one episode set in a Tijuana brothel)

CREDITS: Directed by Gary Ross. Screenplay by Mr. Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Cinematography by John Schwartzman. Production design by Jeannine Oppewall. Costume design by Judianna Makovsky. Race design by Chris McCarron. Head wrangler: Rusty Hendrickson. Stunt coordinator: Dan Bradley. Music by Randy Newman

RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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