3 men, one horse: Seabiscuit looks like a winner

There hasn't been a successful horseracing movie since– I don't know: National Velvet? The makers of Seabiscuit must have breathed a sigh of relief when Pirates of the Caribbean became a hit, reviving another moribund genre.

While most of Hollywood relies on the tried and true, bored critics keep preaching that if you make a good movie, people will come to see it. From a risk-reduction standpoint it didn't hurt that Pirates had name recognition from the theme park ride, and Seabiscuit is based on a best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand.

Once it gets you in the theater it helps that Seabiscuit is an example of good old-fashioned filmmaking enhanced by new-fangled technology. Gary Ross (Pleasantville) moves to the A-list as both writer and director with this story of the four-legged "Rocky" that lifted America's spirits during the Great Depression.

Ross strains for metaphors to show how downtrodden Americans identified with this horse that was hardly the pick of the litter but became a champion. Even more, it's the story of the three men who stuck by him– and each other– in a time when a handshake meant more than a contract does today.

Yes, this is a glorified picture of the American myth, ignoring the fact that the freedom to dream of unlimited possibilities was restricted to straight white men– and more than 99 percent of them had to enjoy success vicariously through a winning racehorse.

Seabiscuit begins in 1910 and devotes a full 40 minutes to the individual stories of its principal human characters before destiny brings them together. Tom Smith is one of the last of the cowboys and has a mystical way of communicating with horses. He saves a lame horse from being shot saying, "You don't throw a whole life away just because he's banged up a little."

Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a bicycle repairman with one eye on the future, moves from New York to San Francisco and becomes a successful automobile dealer. He marries and buys a ranch with a stable that he fills with cars. The death of his son is the death of his marriage, but he finds a new wife, Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), on an R&R trip to Tijuana.

We meet Johnny Pollard at 16 in Alberta, Canada, where the kids in his middle-class family are drilled in classic literature. They lose their house in the stock market crash and, like thousands of families, live in their cars on the road. In a somewhat ambiguous scene, his parents leave Johnny with a racetrack owner who will give his life some stability. Years later Johnny, now known as Red (Tobey Maguire), is doing some jockeying and some boxing to get by.

The three men come together around a seemingly worthless horse named Seabiscuit with Howard as owner, Smith as trainer and Pollard as rider. Red is "pretty tall to be a jockey" but keeps his weight below 115 if he has to invent eating disorders to do it, at least until Howard tells him, "I'd rather have you strong than thin."

With a big jockey on the small horse, Seabiscuit becomes a champion and the hero of the out-of-work working class. He and Red both sustain injuries that evoke predictions they'll never ride again, but they've defied the odds from the beginning. I'm reminded of a line– I forget what it's from– to the effect that, "If this ain't the way it was, it's the way it should have been."

Most of the comic relief is provided by William H. Macy as radio commentator Tick-Tock McGlaughlin, who punctuates his patter with sound effects and is given a clever but anachronistic line when he calls Seabiscuit "the biggest sensation on four legs since Hope and Crosby" (who hadn't yet made the first of their Road films).

Ross' script is corny but effective in the way it weaves everything together: Red needs a father (we never learn what happened to his), Charles needs a son, and America needs a miracle. Bits of history with appropriate photographs are woven in painlessly, and as director Ross manages to find new alternatives to the usual clich├ęd racing shots.

A minor shortcoming is that Seabiscuit himself is not as prominent or recognizable as he might be. That he was a plain bay is part of the point, yet there should be something distinctive (aside from his red racing hood) to let us tell him from other horses when he's not in the winner's circle. Perhaps the film should have been called Jockey (which would also have helped score an underwear tie-in for promotional purposes).

Real jockey Gary Stevens makes his acting debut as George Woolf, "the greatest jockey in the world," and bears a striking resemblance to the Henry Fonda of the period in question.

Seabiscuit is beautifully filmed with the skill in all technical areas Hollywood should be capable of lavishing on all its films but rarely does. At this point in the year it looks likely to cross the finish line during awards season.