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Posts Tagged ‘Seabiscuit’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 20th November 2003: 

Being fat and lacking in co-ordination, sport (or indeed physical exertion in general) has never really appealed to me – at least, not in comparison with sitting very still for two hours in a darkened room staring fixedly in the same direction. Similarly, I’ve never really seen the need for sporting films – I don’t insist that the FA Cup final is an adaptation of the plot of Logan’s Run, and I expect the same consideration from sports fans in return. And if I were to pick my dream sport movie it would more likely be a bio-pic of darts legend Jockey Wilson than something actually about jockeys.

And yet, and yet. You never can tell. Certainly not when a film has had the quantities of money and talent heaped upon it that Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit has. Yup, it’s a sport movie, and yup, it’s a golden-statue trawling expression of American hegemony (if Working Title made a film about Red Rum or Desert Orchid, just how big a release would it get in the USA?). But I have to confess that it is actually rather good.

This is the story of three men and a horse – automobile tycoon Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), slightly alarming farrier Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper), ginger jockey Johnny ‘Red’ Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), and pint-sized racehorse Seabiscuit (played by a horse). During the Depression, all four have more than their fair share of personal tragedy of various kinds, but they’re brought together by a love of racing and a desire to win. Howard owns the horse, Smith trains the horse, and Pollard rides the horse, even though everyone around them thinks the idea that Seabiscuit has any potential must be crackers. Little do they suspect he is really a very tough cookie.

Okay, you could probably guess the plot for yourselves, as the ‘plucky outsider conquers all’ theme has been done to death in this kind of film. But Seabiscuit isn’t trying to be enormously innovative or surprising – the virtues it’s aiming for are those of solid acting and production values, stylish and thoughtful direction, and a sense of the (oh dear) transcendent and unifying power of sport within society. And it hits pretty much every target it sets for itself.

Admittedly the film is probably overlong and certainly mawkish in parts (that Howard’s son’s name is Frankie is a bit unfortunate for UK audiences), and seems a little disjointed near the start. It’s nearly an hour before the titular equine even appears, and for much of this time Ross adopts a very interesting style, piecing together scenes and sequences of the three human characters which on the face of things have little in common, but which clearly express a unity of mood and theme thanks to skilful editing and music. This works better at some moments than others, and as I say it takes a little getting used to, but ultimately works to give the characters a strong grounding which pays dividends later on. Not all of his directorial flourishes work so well – a scene where Smith spies the horse and Pollard simultaneously fighting with stablehands on opposite sides of the same yard needs only a lightbulb appearing over Chris Cooper’s head to complete it – but the actual races scenes are very accomplished, tense and thrilling.

But this is equally an actor’s movie. Jeff Bridges has been underrated as a lightweight performer for some years now, but in many ways he’s the anchor of this film, delivering a very nice turn (and most of the big speeches). Cooper’s performance as the rather taciturn trainer is subtle and nuanced, and Tobey Maguire not only proves there’s much more to him than web fluid and the Daily Bugle, but even manages not to be obliterated by the horrendous ginger perm the part dictates he undergo. William H Macy livens things up with an energetic extended cameo, and Elizabeth Banks is good as Bridges’ wife.

If this movie has a theme beyond one of simple redemption and triumph, it’s a simple one about how America regained its self-belief after the Depression (at one point it looks like adopting a Great Gatsby-ish ‘cars equals progress equals death’ position, but – probably for the best – doesn’t really stick with this). But this isn’t a particularly deep or challenging film, it’s simply a classy, well-crafted and ultimately pleasantly satisfying piece of entertainment.

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