Look-Back Review: Seabiscuit

Posted on 19 December 2014
By Carlton Whitfield
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With cheltenham-odds the 2015 Cheltenham festival odds being released recently and anticipation of this monumental horse-racing event reaching fever-pitch, now is the perfect time to look back at a semi-forgotten entry in the horse-racing film canon. 2003’s Seabiscuit was a box-office success upon its release, making over $120 million dollars, and was received warmly by critics, with legend Roger Ebert claiming that ‘”Seabiscuit” will satisfy those who have read the book, and I imagine it will satisfy those like myself, who have not’ within a largely positive review.

However, despite its relative success, Seabiscuit has failed to join classic horse-racing films, such as National Velvet and The Black Stallion, at the pinnacle of the sub-genre. This is rather sad considering that Seabiscuit, despite its flaws, is easily the best horse-racing film made in the last twenty-years.

The film, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, tells the tale of the racehorse Seabiscuit who, during the Great Depression, became a beacon of hope for millions of Americans. The narrative is based around the story of Red Pollard, played by Tobey Maguire, the son of a Canadian family ruined by the economic recession of the era.

Red, who is left by his family with a horse-trainer in the hope that he will become a successful jockey, is a talented rider but still needs to participate in illegal boxing matches in-order to survive. Maguire, who at this point was mid-way through his stint as Spiderman, gives an impressively understated performance which perfectly balanced intense vulnerability and unrelenting determination.

Red is joined, in his eventual escapades with Seabiscuit, by emotionally damaged stable-owner Charles S. Howard and kind hearted trainer Tom Smith. These two supporting-characters are played with significant gravitas by Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper respectively, with both actors igniting exceptional chemistry with Maguire.

The film’s narrative is a classic an against-the-odds tale which deftly combines professional set-backs, personal traumas and character conflict within its running time. Whilst the narrative’s twists and turns are hardly the most inventive or unexpected in Hollywood history, the film rides this familiar tempo with both class and vigour.

The horse-racing set-pieces are finely filmed and are gifted with enough gritty realism that the audience remains connected and enthralled with the action on screen, rather then feeling they are separated from events by too much cinematic sheen. The film is also cleverly restrained in dealing with the relationship between Seabiscuit and Red. Whilst lesser productions would pile on the sentimentality, regarding this budding man and animal relationship, Gary Ross’s film keeps these sequences short and sweet, realising that the human relationships behind Seabiscuit’s success are much more potent.

Ross’s direction is assured, particularly in the aforementioned race sequences, but rarely spectacular. However, Ross’s no-frills style of film-making does allow the strong lead performances to take centre-stage, making this movie a much more human affair then it could have been with a more flashy director at the helm. The score is similarly rousing but rarely dominates.

However, one area of which this film could have greatly improved upon is the editing. At approaching two-and-a-half hours, Seabiscuit can sometimes seem more of a slog than an epic. Whilst the narrative’s devotion to the backstories of both Howard and Smith is admirable, with Jeff Bridges in-particular pouring some real heart-break into his performance, the film’s pacing greatly suffers as a result. Moreover, Ross’s attempts to retain as much of Seabiscuit’s story as possible, whilst praiseworthy, means that there are far too few payoffs amongst the constant build-up.

Overall, Seabiscuit
is a fine movie and a fantastic character-driven drama against the backdrop of horse-racing and historical tragedy. Whilst the film does lose momentum after bursting out of the block, it still manages to pull-out a fantastic photo finish at the end.