The new film, Seabiscuit, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s hugely popular book, itself based on a true story, is a rare Hollywood film that wants to be an old-fashioned piece of populist Americana. Writer-director Gary Ross — who has given us such sentimental films as Big, Dave, and Pleasantville — has constructed a very entertaining film that could have been much better, were it not for its lavishly self-conscious attempt to revive a long dormant, at least in Hollywood, American populism.
It’s as if the film were trying to make up for decades of neglect entirely on its own and thus it overdoes everything. The film heaps platitude upon platitude — “better to break a man’s leg than his heart,” “you don’t throw away a whole life just because it’s banged up a little,” “men who were broken are restored and men who were shattered find their voices.” It also overplays its parallel plot lines and exaggerates the symmetry in the fates of the major characters. One agrees readily with the facetious comment of a radio announcer (William Macey, who provides marvelous comic relief throughout) about the number of surprising comebacks, “Who’s next? Lazarus?”
This is not to say that Seabiscuit fails as populist entertainment. It holds your attention the entire way and is guaranteed to have you cheering for the under-dog-horse in all the big race scenes, scenes that are, by the way, magnificently shot. And the attempt to recapture Depression-era America works fairly well, even if the rough edges of that era have been blunted.
The film begins just before the Depression. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges in an effective, understated performance) embodies the burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit in America. He moves west to San Francisco, where his automobile industry flourishes. Just as he toasts “the future,” the Wall Street crash occurs and he suffers a family tragedy. When we catch up with him some years later, he is no longer interested in cars but in horses and the potential profits of racing. His return to American success and national prominence parallels the paths of the jockey, John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire) and the horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), the three of whom stake their futures on an undersized horse named Seabiscuit.
In his youth, the diminutive horse slept late, ate more than horses twice his size, and was allowed to race only to give more promising horses a taste of victory. He was, as the film repeatedly points out, trained to lose. Similarly, Red finds himself abandoned by his parents and of use mainly for menial, demoralizing jobs. A down-on-his-luck trainer, Smith identifies the two and pairs them as a racing team. In their first race, they make a promising start but lose after being provoked by the tactics of a mediocre team. When Smith asks Red why he departed from their race plan, a still-enraged Red yells, “He fouled me!” Smith’s calm, focused demeanor supplies the discipline both horse and jockey need. They begin winning throughout the west coast. On the east coast, the dominant horse is War Admiral, whose owner is the reincarnation of Mr. Potter, the rich, ruthless, condescending bad guy from Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. He repeatedly refuses the challenges from the Seabiscuit team; to press inquiries about his unwillingness to face Seabiscuit, he issues the mock rhetorical question, “Would you put Jack Dempsey in the ring with a middleweight?”
But his dismissals only spur Charles Howard’s insistence that there must be a “match race.” He begins a populist crusade, a Seabiscuit cross-country tour; each stop is a photo-op at which crowds clamor for Seabiscuit to be given a chance to prove himself. Finally, on November 1, 1938 at Pimlico, the race occurs. And this scene reveals the extent to which an inordinate preoccupation with documentary realism and populism harms the film. Instead of using its glorious cinematography to display the race, Ross elects to communicate the race to viewers mostly through period photographs of folks gathered around radios to hear the broadcast.
In addition to period photos, the film accentuates its documentary feel through the occasional commentary of David McCullough, of the American Experiment. In the opening, McCullough describes the birth of the assembly line, which, McCollough assures us, is the “beginning and the end of imagination.” The Depression shakes the confidence in progress and in the alliance of man and machine; it allows for a reconnection with nature through the cooperation of man and animal. But this is not a Romantic elevation of nature over civilization. Instead, it celebrates the quintessentially American experience of the integration of the competitive and the cooperative virtues.
It also underscores a practical point about classical literature, from Shakespeare to Dickens, authors whom Pollard’s father encouraged him to read. As he and Seabiscuit begin winning and attracting media attention, Red comments, “‘Though he be but little, he is fierce,’ that’s Shakespeare!” However limited may be the literary allusions in the film, Red’s family education helped to keep his imagination alive in the midst of deprivation, injustice, and abuse. At the dinner table, his father would begin famous literary passages and require his children to complete them. When the economic devastation of the Depression hits the family, Red’s parents think the best hope for him is to work as a hired hand on a horse farm, where his gift with horses stands some chance of being cultivated. They also leave him his books, which he reads even after being brutally beaten in a boxing match. If he harbors an anger toward his parents, he also has the intellectual, moral, and imaginative resources to long for something more than what he presently has, to aspire to greatness. What Tom Smith says of Seabiscuit is equally true of Red early in the film: “He’s so beaten up, he’s forgotten what he was born to do.”
Maguire is terrific in his part. With his performance in Spiderman and now in Seabiscuit, he is beginning to show some real toughness and emotional range as an actor. His performance here illustrates — and the success of Hillenbrand’s book further confirms — the important role that classical storytelling can play in the midst of a democracy that seems often to crave only money and notoriety. It provides a vocabulary, examples, and narratives of cooperative excellence achieved through the mastery of a craft.
— Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.