Seabiscuit, see Biscuit run!

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is one of the more popular fallacies in the art world. Describing the grin of the Mona Lisa is no easy feat, but if the axiom is true, then why are movies never as good as the books that spawned them? Nearly two and a half hours of 24 frames per second is a lot of pictures, yet Seabiscuit never captures the brilliance, excitement or depth of Laura Hillenbrand’s spectacular book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend.


Both the film and book focus on the unimaginably successful Depression-era racehorse Seabiscuit, and how his running career weaves together the lives of Edmonton-born jockey Red Pollard, cowboy/trainer Tom Smith and millionaire car-dealer-turned-horse-owner Charles Howard. The comeback and second chances of the racetrack reflect the troubled state of the American nation, with Seabiscuit and his entourage becoming celebrities and heroes.


Naturally, no movie can contain every fact of the true story. However, why Ross changes certain pieces is baffling. Seemingly designed to add melodrama and sentimentality to a story already overflowing with it, his changes are irritatingly unnecessary. Why leave behind the best parts of a wonderful story and invent cliché excess?


Keep this in mind: Red Pollard’s parents never abandoned him, the only person who knew he was blind was his wife and Seabiscuit’s trainer Tom Smith pulled the horse out of match races with War Admiral-it wasn’t just a one-sided affair. None of these mutations make much sense-any trainer who would let a half-blind jockey ride is disturbingly negligent, not a loving father figure-and more importantly, they gained little audience response. The races were the real winners, drawing both sudden, focused silence and enthusiastic cheers, hoots and calls of “go Seabiscuit, go” from theatre-goes.


Still, this is no action film, even if the frequent race scenes in Seabiscuit probably employed more jockeys than Stampede Park in a good year. Like all good dramatic-sports films, this a character study about heart and courage. Thankfully, the performances range from tolerable runs to perfect rides.


Jeff Bridges plays the media-star Howard with appropriate gregariousness. William H. Macy, as the fictional yet funny radio announcer, is a constant bright spot, while Tobey Maguire manages to infuse Pollard with some of the anger and grittiness missing in the screen version of the jockey.


Red was no cute kid along for the ride; he was a destructive combination of fearlessness and desperation, that in his real life destroyed his body and drove him to alcoholism and despair, a feeling Maguire captures. The always fabulous Chris Cooper must have actually read the book, as he gives the quiet, nervy Smith more depth than the screenwriter Gary Ross bothers to write for him. A shame, as Smith is by far the funniest, most scheming character of the book.


For all this talent though, put your money on Gary Stevens. His non-existent film resume may be unimpressive, but his three Kentucky Derby wins gave him ample talent for his role as George Woolf, Pollard’s jockey buddy. In looks, manner and riding skill, Stevens is the reincarnation of the fearless hall of fame jockey.


Ross’ script isn’t a complete failure as, overall, Seabiscuit manages to walk between hilarious, exciting and moving without too many missteps. Much stronger as a director, Ross creates some great scene cuts, including one from the starting gate to a still photo with a quiet radio broadcast that silenced the theatre, in a good way. Such moments suggest the potential for a real winner, but at the wire, Seabiscuit is a few lengths short.


But, if you haven’t yet read Hillenbrand’s book, don’t-not yet, anyway. Go sit in the stands of the theatre, cheer at the fabulously fake races and enjoy Seabiscuit. Then, if you want the dirty, grittier, more exciting tale, start reading.

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