Seabiscuit (2003)

Directed by Gary Ross

I’m not sure what you say about a film like this except that Seabiscuit is a thoroughly enjoyable, wonderfully made movie. In many ways it’s an old style, mainstream movie in the type of story it tells and in the way it tells it.

It has the look and feel of a Sunday night CBC movie. A very good CBC Sunday night movie. (Maybe because the network seems to love this period – it seems half of what they produce is based in this era.)

But it’s not the CBC – It’s Hollywood.

The story is simple. Set in Depression-era America, three broken men and a broken horse come together and, as the scripts says, “… fix each other.” The narrative thread is linear and also simple. It starts with background, their happier beginnings.

Then life happens to them and they are beaten down (timed roughly with the beginning of the Depression of the 1930’s). Then they struggle back to succeed (though with some setbacks).

It’s a hopeful, inspirational kind of film but not with the negative connotations that often come with that kind of description. The movie does what it sets out to do without being excessively sentimental, although there is definitely some of that in the movie. It’s a bit inevitable given the subject matter.

As mentioned, the story and narrative are not complex. But this doesn’t mean it resists trying to add something more. There’s an effort to add some subtext; the film tries to overlay a larger, metaphorical meaning to its tale.

Part of the film’s style is to work with an almost documentary technique using a very paternal sounding, grandfatherly voice-over (David McCullough). This certainly works for setting the context of the film and laying in the back story.

But it also wants to use the story of Seabiscuit as a kind of metaphor for America in the thirties.

The horse and the men are partly intended to represent the American spirit and how, though banged and bruised, it rose up again. This effort is less successful though.

While it seems an obvious fit, as the film moves to its conclusion this meaning seems to fade as we get caught up in the story.

When the film ends, it’s not a story of the collective American spirit we come away with but individual spirit and individual connections.

A large part of what makes Seabiscuit work is the cast, especially its key characters. Jeff Bridges plays Charles Howard (owner of Seabiscuit) with a wonderfully folksy charm. Chris Cooper plays taciturn trainer Tom Smith a great rural honesty, and Tobey Maquire plays jockey Red Pollard with anger and passion.

The three work very well together and all give great, convincing performances.

In the end, Seabiscuit is a folk tale, which is why its simplicity works for it. It mythologizes the period in which it’s set, the 1930’s, and that is what it’s intended to do.

I like director Gary Ross’ movies (Dave and Pleasantville). He clearly has a romantic, sentimental penchant, but seems to be able to control the excesses of these types of films.

The result is very entertaining, moving films.

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