Seabiscuit (review)

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Horse Power

The music swells over the moment of victory, tears run freely down my face, fade to black, movie over. And I want to sob even longer and harder. Usually the rolling credits and the lights coming up in this kind of situation means a letup in the girly crying, but not this time. There’s something else going on besides the usual Oscar-baiting, triumph-of-the-human-and-equine-spirit shrink-wrapped Gourmet Film.

Yes, this is a coffee-table movie, beautifully packaged, foreword and narration by Noted Literary/Academic Personage David McCullough, they spared no expense. It’s Ken Burns writ large, like PBS and the BBC decided to get together on a sports-as-metaphor-for-life movie. Golden-hued and whispery reverential, Seabiscuit is lovely to look at and listen to, with gorgeous imagery (cinematographer John Schwartzman also shot the handsome The Rookie) and an elegant and stylish score (from Randy Newman). You can’t fault the heartfelt performances or deny their power: the intense package that is Tobey Maguire, whom producer Kathleen Kennedy would like us to think of as a new DeNiro, and she may be right, the way he balls up rage and vulnerability and a tender masculinity into one scrappy bundle; Jeff Bridges, with his stately, stolid nobility that’s an odd fit for some of the roles he gets shoehorned into, and works wonderfully here; Chris Cooper, whose mere presence seems to elevate everything around him into the stratosphere, who speaks volumes with a flick of his gaze or a nod of his head or a quirk of his mouth.

But a couple of years ago, I’d probably have wanted to smack director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) more than a few times. Okay, I can imagine myself from back then saying, we get it: The boy jockey (Maguire: Spider-Man, Wonder Boys) and his horse (Fighting Furrarri and nine other horses) have both been beat up and beat down by the world, so they’re perfect for each other, recognizing the anger and the bitterness in each other. Okay, we get it: The wealthy ranch owner (Bridges: K-pax, The Contender) and the horse trainer he hires (Cooper: Adaptation, The Bourne Identity) had lost hope and were adrift in their own lives, and now this unlikely underdog horse and its unlikely underdog boy jockey and their unlikely underdog success have restored their faith in all that might be. For all the bits of neat-and-tidiness that get bypassed, thankfully — like the reunion between Maguire’s Red Pollard and his estranged family, which I was sure was a given and is instead utterly absent — there are a few too many moments where the Obvious Stick comes out and bashes us about the head.

Yet I think I can forgive Seabiscuit all its transgressions because this is exactly the kind of movie we need at this precise moment. The world, after all, feels like the world of the movie, stuck in the depths of the Great Depression and looking for something to make it feel good and hopeful and optimistic for the future and finding it in Seabiscuit and Red Pollard. Everything was unraveling, but hey, if this too-small horse and too-big jockey can win, so can every little guy in America who’s just trying to earn a buck or two and feed his family. Fantasy, sure, but a distracting one.

And here we are today, where it feels like the world’s coming apart and going to pieces, our president lying to seduce the nation to war and dismissing criticisms of this because he has “moved on” and so should we while he simultaneously taunts the enemy into attacking overextended and morale-poor soldiers. Where what passes for political discourse is shouting matches on AM radio and cable TV. Where unemployment goes down because people give up looking for jobs. Where bigotry is rearing its hideous head again, driven by hypocrisy and false piety. Where the only heroes are joint inventions of the Pentagon and the press.

I couldn’t stop crying, I think, because I wished for something real today that would inspire and distract the way that Seabiscuit and Pollard did 70 years ago. What do we have now that even comes close? It’s all bread-and-circuses, Who Wants to Fuck for Money? and Kobe Bryant and “Guess who’s not a virgin anymore…” I look around and see nothing heartening and nothing uplifting and no end to the downward spiral. If Seabiscuit is what there is to cling to, then cling I shall.

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