December 2003


Three Cheers for Seabiscuit!

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Every now and then the Hollywood entertainment industry manages to produce a film that transcends mere entertainment to achieve something deeply satisfying, a work of cinematic art. When it does, the basic elements are always the same: a great story told with intelligence and passion through sound and pictures. This year's Seabiscuit is a case in point, and a potent reminder of the extent to which filmmaking, while an intensely collaborative art, is dependent first and foremost on a strong screenplay.

The film's screenwriter-director Gary Ross found the remarkable story of Seabiscuit in Laura Hillenbrand's nonfiction bestseller of the same name, about a Depression-era racehorse and the three broken men who joined forces to make it a champion, against all odds. Like Hillenbrand, who has been writing about the sport since 1988, Ross has a passion for thoroughbred racing. Also like her, however, he was drawn to the story mainly for its human dimensions. And riveting though Seabiscuit's racing sequences are, it is the tale of these three men, each beaten down by life in his own way--and of the healing effect of their unlikely partnership to realize the potential of a an even more unlikely horse--that make this film worth seeing and remembering. As Seabiscuit's owner quips at one point in the film, this is a story about the triumph of a horse that was too small, a jockey that was too big, a trainer that was too old, and an owner who was too stupid to know the difference.

Notwithstanding a few briefly confusing expository scenes, Ross skillfully weaves together the histories of these three strikingly different men--the charismatic self-made millionaire owner, Charles Howard; the broodingly reckless jockey, "Red" Pollard, with the heart of a poet; and the gentle, soft-spoken, displaced-cowboy trainer, Tom Smith. With the incalculable contribution of three superb actors (Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, and Chris Cooper, respectively--all of whom enriched his conception), Ross realized highly idiosyncratic yet deeply believable characters engaged in a compelling human drama. To reshape Hillenbrand's 400-page work of nonfiction effectively for the screen, he engaged both in a high degree of selectivity and in no small measure of original creation. One of his most ingenious inventions is the character of an eccentric sportscaster named "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin (brilliantly played by William H. Macy)--whose radio commentary on Seabiscuit provides a unifying narrative thread, a welcome comic relief to the film's dramatic intensity, and a historically appropriate touch recalling the role of broadcasting in making Seabiscuit the underdog hero of a populace staggering under the hardships of the Depression.

One thing Hollywood generally does very well is to recreate period atmosphere, and 1930s America is brought vividly to life in Seabiscuit through discriminating set and costume design. Unlike so many films, in which elaborate production values absent a satisfying narrative impress one as a costly but futile exercise, Seabiscuit more than repays the effort and cost expended. Ross's incorporation of authentic documentary news footage and a voiceover narration by historian David McCullough further contribute to recreating the context in which Seabiscuit's extraordinary triumph became an inspiration to a beleaguered American people. On the whole, Ross handles these elements effectively, though at a few points his script's celebration of the New Deal seemed a bit too explicitly political, sounding a jarring note in an otherwise superbly orchestrated film--superbly orchestrated literally as well as figuratively, thanks to Randy Newman's outstanding musical score. I should perhaps mention one more jarring element: a scene showing Pollard in a brothel. Do filmmakers really need to insert such gratuitous references to sexuality in order to avoid the dread "G" rating, lest their work be disregarded as serious adult fare?

In any case, those are minor flaws, readily forgotten. If you've not yet seen Seabiscuit, don't miss it. It is best viewed on a big screen, where the racing scenes get their full scope. If it is no longer being shown in your area, you might want to wait until Oscar time, when it is likely to gain renewed attention.

Seabiscuit: The Screenplay (Ballantine Books, November 2003)

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