directed by Gary Ross
(DreamWorks, 2003)

Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was a self-made millionaire grieving over the death of his young son and the divorce that followed. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) was a solitary wild horse-wrangler grieving over the loss of the open prairie. And Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was a Shakespeare-spouting young storyteller with a great gift for riding horses, but, like so many young men during the Great Depression, no family and no home.

Given the differences in their stations, and Howard's initial disdain for horses, it would seem only a miracle could bring them together. The miracle's name was Seabiscuit.

Seabiscuit was a horse with a noble bloodline but little potential for racing -- or so his original owners and trainers thought. He was too small and, after years of abusive training, too crazy. But Howard, having bought the horse at his new wife's bidding, had different ideas.

"Sometimes when a little guy doesn't know he's a little guy, he can do big things," Howard tells reporters in one scene.

But if Seabiscuit is a Capra-esque story, it gets Coppola-esque treatment in the hands of director Gary Ross, who also wrote the screenplay based on Laura Hillenbrand's book. Through Ross, Seabiscuit becomes a series of powerful images, beginning, oddly enough, with a montage of black-and-white photos depicting the rise of the Model T Ford. That's followed in rapid succession by the colorful tale of Howard's rise to riches and the despair that followed with the stock market crash of 1929, again captured efficiently and succinctly in black-and-white photos.

Ross intercuts these montages with expansive landscapes and sweeping action scenes -- the horses thundering the bend at the local racetrack, Pollard taking Seabiscuit out for his first run.

There's also a fair amount of humor, especially when racetrack radio reporter Tick Tock McGlaughlin (a mustachioed William H. Macy) turns up to predict that Seabiscuit "couldn't win a church raffle," much less a horse race.

The rest, of course, is history. Seabiscuit went on to become one of the greatest champions of all time, defeating, in a match race, the prize racehorse of the era, War Admiral.

And he changed the face of horse racing as well, becoming a hero to the little people who bore the worst brunt of the bad times -- the ones, as Pollard put it, who only had a quarter in their pockets.

But Seabiscuit is more than a blast from the past. It's a series of deftly interwoven personal sagas; a director's guide on to how to shoot, light and edit films; and a collection of performances the likes of which you rarely see in three films, much less one.

Of the three, Chris Cooper's is easily the most intriguing to watch. As the horse whisperer who intuits Seabiscuit's deepest needs and helps fulfill them, Cooper is mesmerizing in his movements and his presence, offering a quiet retreat from Maguire's angry outbursts and Howard's reassuring homilies.

And have I mentioned the score (nominated for a Golden Globe) is by Randy Newman?

So Seabiscuit is more than a history lesson, more than a tale of loss and renewal, more than the story of a committee of misfits who overcame all odds and gave the little people of the world a little bit of hope in a time when a little bit of anything had to go a long way.

It's an epic for the common folk. And one uncommon horse.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 24 January 2004

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