The River

Friday, July 25, 2003

Seabiscuit, the movie

The other night I saw Seabiscuit on an advanced screening pass.

Listen, Seabiscuit was a great horse. Some fine people recognized it, honored it, and they all took the ride of a lifetime. They, to a man, woman, and horse, had heart. And with heart, adversity could be faced, not feared. They proved it.

In Hollywood, adversity is your Beemer in the shop. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the big-screen adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s lovely book is out of touch with horse racing, the Great Depression, and America in the ‘30s.

So Seabiscuit and company could tromp all over the one-time national malaise, but they’re celluloid stand-ins aren’t up to today’s challenges. As in, I’m sorry, but if you load me down with the conventional and the safe, if you saddle me with the unrealistic and the unearned, then I can’t show you anything.

Well, nothing you haven’t seen a million times already: rich photography, autumnal colors, soaring music, broad strokes, big emotions. Documentary style sections lifted directly from Ken Burns, right down to THE voice of the Civil War series.

The cast gives it an earnest shot, but the filmmaker muddies up the track (syrup was used), and they never find the footing needed to hit the board. Chris Cooper, however, like his character, says, “hell, I figured this would happen. I’ll keep my head down and do what I do best. Something good will happen.” Maybe his next film…

One actor, who isn’t an actor at all, but real-life jockey great Gary Stevens, seems oblivious to the entertainment game, a thoroughbred with nothing to prove, but plenty to offer. In his every scene (a dozen maybe) he exudes not necessarily great acting, but great empathy. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m no actor, but I know all about the hard life/hard luck stories of these racetracker characters. Hollywood? You mean that joke on the other side of town? You can have it.”

Just a few seconds of Gary getting ready for the War Admiral-Sea Biscuit match race, quietly concentrating on taping his whip, lent a gravity and realism that the film otherwise lacked, documentary footage notwithstanding. You know he’s done this thousands of times, including the small tracks (the bushes, or bullrings as they’re known) of his native Idaho, on up to the big time. Preparing for battle, risking his life and limb (literally), following a discipline with utmost fidelity. Watching him and fellow great Southern California jockey Chris McCarron in the post parade and race was a beautiful thing.

They even seem to inspire the director to tone down the mythmaking a bit and just shoot the match race. Apply that to an entire movie, you might have something remarkable. Too bad movies are so expensive (at least those slotted for big budget hit status) or the director could have trashed the final cut and filmed something better, taking the handful of genuine moments as a springboard. Short of that, a re-edit might have helped.

The whole film feels flabby, 2 ½ hours of predictable ups and downs, a true story forced to march lockstep in Hollywood mythos. Only Gary Stevens seems to truly connect with life’s hardship and triumph – the film’s ostensible themes. That’s how it worked for me; I don’t want to saddle Gary with unrealistic expectations. Chris Cooper, Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, one or all, even the whole film might do it for you. Stevens might stand out only as an unsophisticated actor clearly out of his depth.

Hell, the film’s not bad, on a free pass on a Wednesday night. But a few beers at the back end of the enormous, open-to-the-sky parking lot of the 24 megaplex, watching the sun go down would have been better.

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