A long shot becomes a legend
"Seabiscuit" is a good movie that should have been a great one. All the pieces were in place for this to be a truly stunning film. The film possesses a naturally inspirational story, a beautiful setting and an extremely talented cast featuring Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper in leading roles. Yet, the film becomes mired down largely due to the hesitant direction of Gary Ross, who also wrote and directed "Pleasantville" and scripted such wonderful fare as "Big" and "Dave."
Ross co-wrote this script, and it is an excellent, Oscar-nominated screenplay. Yet, what he brings to the table as a director is an obvious fear of an over-emotional film. There are several scenes where I sat there watching the actors, knowing what they could do...and wondering why they didn't. It's as if Ross was holding them back.
Ironically, the film's cinematography is also Oscar-nominated...however, it's also one of my concerns. While the camera work on the horses is phenomenal, including during the races, there were several almost "still" shots that struck me as intentionally melodramatic and completely pulled me out of the scene. For example, when Red comes back to Seabiscuit for the first time after their injuries and the camera pans down on the bandages on both their legs. It was needlessly melodramatic in a film that seems to work hard to maintain a peaceful tone. This sort of shot occurred on several occasions, and each time I felt like the film had been disrupted. It was a brief disruption, but a disruption.
I also grew tired of the shots of WPA and CCC efforts throughout the film. While I understood their purpose, it became overkill. In particular, I was bothered by the black & white, family at the radio shots prior to the big race at Pimlico between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. It completely disrupted the adrenaline and energy around the big race. That, in fact, was my biggest concern with the cinematography...while it captured the beauty of horseracing, seldom did I get the intensity and suspense of horse racing. Having gone to the Kentucky Derby several times, and to a local horse track, I'm aware of the intensity and emotion present. No matter how big the race, it never felt like this intensity was captured on film.
Randy Newman's soundtrack did a nice job of setting the tone for the film, sometimes too blatantly. Once again, I felt like the "race" score was too peaceful and failed to set an accurate horseracing mood.
Now, with all those complaints...how do I give this film a "B"? This is a wonderfully scripted, beautiful shot film in most cases. The performances are, across the board, quite good. Jeff Bridges is a natural here...while the role of Charles Howard is not a huge stretch for him, he adds significantly to the character in quiet ways. Additionally, Chris Cooper is wonderful as Tom Smith...had Cooper not won the Oscar the year prior to this he'd likely have been nominated for this performance. However, the Academy now knows what he's capable of...and, as good as he was here, he can be MUCH better and add so much more to a role when given the freedom to do so. The same is true for Maguire...I'm a major Maguire fan, and he does a nice job here...yet, in some ways, I almost felt like I was watching him again in "Cider House Rules." Maguire is capable of great depth as an actor, and it felt like he was reined in here.
The rest of the supporting cast does a nice job including William H. Macy and Valerie MaHaffey, especially.
Fans of horseracing and any of these actors should be happy with this film. While this is not their best performances, each performer gives a good performance and brings much to this wonderful story. While we were repeatedly told that Seabiscuit really galvanized the nation during the Great Depression, this film really wasn't able to capture the full power of this story. Still, it does capture a beautiful, inspirational story that I'm sure you will enjoy.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic