*/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B-
starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks
screenplay by Gary Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand
directed by Gary Ross
by Walter Chaw In a summer redolent with superhero melodramas, Seabiscuit, a Golden Age bodice-twister about a plucky boy and his intrepid horse populated with a cast of good-looking cut-outs to fill out the good-looking backgrounds, isn't even the most interesting. All of it feels a little airless--a carefully-manipulated arrangement composed entirely of meticulously-preserved flowers that give the illusion of vitality when in truth, they're taken out of time and well past their prime. Seabiscuit could have been made in the 1940s--and it was, really, as My Friend Flicka: two untamed spirits tamed by one another while various authority figures wisely cheer them on. Like that film, writer-director Gary Ross's adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's excellent non-fiction washes out as something creepily nostalgic, weightless, and unintentionally disturbing. There's something poetic about a scene in the middle of Seabiscuit when Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, always good) leaves in the middle of a bloody bullfight when taken with a line later in the film when plucky boy jockey Red (Tobey Maguire) warns his replacement not to beat Seabiscuit on his left flank because "that's where he was beaten when he was young." Beat him on the right side, is the implication, and decades of conditioning from other films (particularly Disney's anthropomorphic films) have made driving animals to the brink of exhaustion and death at the end of whip a little hard to take with a blithe indifference.
But Seabiscuit is altogether too innocuous to inspire much deep thought, so drunk on its own sense of self-importance that it manages the fantastic feat of both stripping the source material down to its bare bones and dangerously bloating it. The idea that the fate of this little racehorse that could (and ultimately, even the idea that the horse is an underdog is a bit of a cheat, since Seabiscuit's lineage was sterling--less "underdog" than "underachiever") galvanized a nation reeling under the Great Depression is the only idea that remains in the film, seized by Ross as an opportunity to insert archive stills of the period--complete with voice-over from historian David McCullough--to lend his horse opera the sort of gravitas he's not able to provide through narrative. (That a match between Seabiscuit and goliath Triple-Crown champion War Admiral on November 1, 1938 was heard by a ridiculous 40 million people seems to support the contention that there was something significant about this story; it's a great shame that none of that really comes through in Ross's hurdy-gurdy telling of it.)
The story in brief concerns grieving car magnate Howard purchasing rundown racehorse Seabiscuit for a song, then taking in rundown jockey Red as his ward, then hiring fruit loop Tom (Chris Cooper, arguably the best thing about the film) to be the horse/brat whisperer. Lo and behold, Howard's modest investment (and brat/horse sense) scores him the racehorse sensation of the Great Depression as it gallops into America's collective heart and helps her pull through our darkest hour. As closing narration informs: "People think we found a broken down horse and fixed him, but he fixed us, every one of us, and I guess we kinda fixed each other, too." Uh huh.
Everything is so pre-chewed about the film, from its characters to its symbolism, that it curiously democratizes every single event into nearly identical two-minute rises and falls in conflict and resolution--the end result of which is not only disastrous to rhythm and perspective, but also lends a similar levelling of importance levied to every event. Howard meeting his new wife (Parker Posey-look-alike Elizabeth Banks, her character ornamental to the degree that she should have been listed as "Reaction Shot" in the credits) carries the same weight as Howard losing his insipid little boy to a car crash (it occurs that Howard shouldn't answer the phone--each of the two two-minute vignettes in which he does informs him of a crash: stock market and otherwise), which also carries the same weight as Red losing his vision in a two-minute boxing match and, later, as Seabiscuit blowing out a wheel (after Red has also blown out a wheel). When everything matters the same, nothing matters at all.
That the events in the film are taken from history is not really a point made with much weight or currency. When Ross goes to such pains to draw a line between Red and Seabiscuit, history becomes as devalued as the English 101 crutches upon which the filmmaker leans. There's no disputing that both Red and Seabiscuit are injured and enjoy unlikely recoveries, but is it possible that both of their lives are spent in identically framed, much-commented-upon dialectical symmetry with one another? There's no counting the number of puns, visual or otherwise, that Ross uses in Seabiscuit to painstakingly, in a mentally-challenged sort of way, illustrate the connection between this boy and his colt. In case the long pans between Seabiscuit struggling between four handlers and Red struggling between four bullies (who are they? Why are they after Seabiscuit/Red? Who cares if it serves the almighty analogy? The problem crops up again when Red asks Howard for a loan--Howard, you see, has adopted Red as a surrogate for his dead boy; it's kind of humiliating to even have to tell you this, which calls into question how aware Ross is of his own condescension)--in case all of that is insufficient for the gaffed audience to draw its own conclusions, Ross provides a couple of two-minute expository sequences in which a character will plainly state the connection: "Whom are you talking about? Red or the horse?"
Seabiscuit is ponderous mainstream pap of the "suspended mote" school of controversy-free nostalgia, blazed a late-summer ago by the similarly piffle Road to Perdition. It tries to dazzle with its imported weight and its stuffy, storyboarded tableaux, and all the while its emptiness sleight-of-hands its way around with big talk, a little like Randy Newman's light-fingered and embarrassed Americana score. (I want to think the music is a big caustic joke on us, knowing Newman's early work as I do, but I fear it might be an indication that the narcotizing lie Newman used to warn us about might have been more powerful than he suspected.) Seabiscuit ranks low among this year's films not because it's as bad as most, but because it at once believes itself to be more important than it is--and believes its audience to be more gullible than it is. What it mistakes for stupidity in fact may be the fatigue that made the summer of 2003 a financial boondoggle: a nation of moviegoers desperate for something that isn't a collection of explosions (though the film is edited with a hacksaw), isn't based on a comic book (though it might as well be), and isn't some sort of appalling moral cess (though it does indulge in the same sort of low-angle fetishistic monumentalizing as, say, Michael Bay). Seabiscuit, in other words, preys on our heart-sickness. Taken with movies that are just cheerfully abhorrent, that feels somehow worse. Originally published: July 25, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Universal releases Seabiscuit on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions; concern yourself only with the former (which we received for review), for if there's one thing you never want to do, it's watch a film shot by John Schwartzman that's been "reformatted to fit your screen."* (I caught ten minutes of The Rookie in pan-and-scan on an airplane and found myself reaching for the courtesy barf-bag.) The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is razor-sharp yet creamy smooth, so velvety you want to caress it--I do believe this is the finest-looking DVD from the studio to date, down to every last point on the checklist: contrast, shadow detail, saturation, colour rendering, etc. Less conspicuous is the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which kicks up a lot of subwoofer dust (courtesy Seabiscuit and his heavy-hoofed rivals) but offers a limited number of rear-channel cues. With its top-drawer video and modest soundtrack, the presentation is very much in keeping with the DVD experience of director Gary Ross's previous film, Pleasantville.
Although he had nothing to do with Seabiscuit, the prolific Steven Soderbergh joins Ross for a feature-length commentary. Alas, the results are not nearly as magical as some of the filmmaker's past yakkers, suggesting he's burnt-out on the whole trend. Soderbergh asks perfunctory questions and offers lazy analyses, though Ross is alert and responsive, if difficult to engage in a cineaste dialogue: When Soderbergh mentions Jeff Bridges's "New Wave" period of '69-'76, Ross cites 1981's Cutter's Way in concurrence, and you can practically hear the other man gritting his teeth. Conversation, too, tends to be maddeningly circuitous, with points made about the picture's Luddite slant and made again for good measure and made a third time because both men have evidently arrived at the same unspoken conclusion: that Seabiscuit is no enigma.
The disc is otherwise light on extras to the benefit of picture quality. Laurent Bouzereau's "Bringing the Legend to Life: The Making of Seabiscuit" (15 mins.) is mildly intriguing for how Laura Hillenbrand assesses her book's screenplay adaptation therein--and mildly amusing, perhaps unintentionally, for producer Frank Marshall's explanation that ten horses were on call to double for the title character, always guaranteeing "fresh Seabiscuits." The even better "Anatomy of a Movie Moment" (5 mins.) finds Ross reading from his prose storyboard for the sequence in which Howard's son dies. As I've never seen the preparation of a shot list approached in such a novelistic fashion, I overlooked the naïveté of Ross's justifications for each camera angle.
In Herzog Productions' "Seabiscuit: Racing Through History" (15 mins.), Hillenbrand and Ross recapitulate the story of the film. The piece is flavoured by the expertise of folks like BLOODHORSE MAGAZINE's editor-in-chief Ray Pollick, who astutely observes that Seabiscuit's race against War Admiral epitomized a minor civil war that broke out between the East and the West at the height of the Great Depression. "Photo Finish: Jeff Bridges' On-the-Set Photographs" (5 mins.) is an animated compilation of select behind-the-scenes stills taken with Bridges's notorious Widelux camera, complete with annotations by the actor. Cast/filmmaker bios/filmos, production notes, and ROM-enabled weblinks round out the platter. Prepare to encounter a forced trailer for the upcoming DVD release of Schindler's List upon inserting the disc. Originally published: December 9, 2003.