By Shawn McKenzie 07/25/2003
I’m always leery when I start hearing Oscar buzz about a movie. I wonder if it actually justified, or just a publicity tactic to get people to see the movie. In the case of Seabiscuit, I think that Oscar buzz is justified.
This is the story of how a horse that some people thought should have been put down encouraged three men who, in turn with the horse, inspired the nation. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was a factory worker around the turn of the 20th century who always saw the potential in things that others didn’t. He got the inspiration to open a bicycle shop because he thought it would be more efficient than a horse. Since he advertised that he sold and repaired bikes, a man (James Keane) with an automobile assumed he could also fix his car. After tearing the car apart and putting it back together, he realized that the future was in auto sales. He was right, and soon became one of the most successful Buick dealers in America. The Great Depression then hit the country, and Charles was affected, though not as badly as most. He did lose one of the most important people in his life though, his son Frankie (Dyllan Christopher), ironically in a car accident. With the depression of the loss of his son, coupled with his first wife Annie (Valerie Mahaffey) leaving him, he seemed to drift back to the thing he had initially shunned, horses. One person who had always had a connection with horses was Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a cowboy who could no longer ride horses freely and now just trains them. Another person who had also had a long-time connection with horses was Johnny “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), an intelligent redheaded kid who loved books but loved riding horses even more. He had a loving family who encouraged his talents, but when the Depression hit, his father (Michael O’Neill) and mother (Annie Corley) gave a young Red (Michael Angarano, Red as a child) to a rich couple who wanted to take advantage of his talents as a horse rider. Meanwhile, a few years after the death of his son, Charles found himself spending a lot of time at the horseracing track, where he meets Marcela Zabala (Elizabeth Banks), who soon becomes his second wife. They decide to buy a racehorse, and with Charles’ tendency to pick the underdogs, they buy Seabiscuit, the grandson of Man-O-War, a champion racehorse. Seabiscuit hadn’t picked up his dad’s championship traits though. He was knobby-kneed, too short, and had a bad disposition. Charles saw something special in the horse though, and he saw something special in Tom also, whom he hired to train the horse and find a jockey. Tom found that jockey in Red, who by this time had also developed a bad disposition, since he had lost the sight in his right eye because of the prizefighting he had to do to supplement his income. Despite being half-blind and a little too tall, he seemed to have the best connection to Seabiscuit, so he became Charles’ jockey. After working out the quirks, Team Seabiscuit found themselves winning all the races and becoming big stars in the West. They wanted to make national news, so they began challenging the Triple Crown winning horse, War Admiral, to a championship race. Millionaire Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones) owned War Admiral, and he had no desire to race against Seabiscuit. Eventually pressure from the press, led by Tick Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy), forces Riddle to give in. Right before the big race though, Red is tricked into pacing another horse, which results in him becoming seriously injured. They hire George Woolf (Gary Stevens) to replace him temporarily. Red imparts all his knowledge of the horse to George, which pays off, and Seabiscuit becomes the 1938 Horse of the Year after his race against War Admiral, ridden by Charley Kurtsinger (Chris McCarron), at Pimlico. George continues to race the horse in further races, but Seabiscuit goes lame during one race. With both Red and Seabiscuit down and out, they work together to try to get back in the race.
I didn’t know whether to punish this movie for being gratuitously tearjerky, or reward it for actually making me get a little weepy. In the end, I went with the latter. This movie has so much to offer. First off, it can serve as an inspiration to anyone who wants to triumph over adversity. The three major characters, Red, Charles, and Tom, all have to go through this, with Red having to do it more than once. The horse is that source of inspiration for them all, but it’s Red who picks the horse up as well. They live a symbiotic relationship. This movie also serves as a great history lesson for kids about America from the turn of the century through 1940. The narrator of the movie, voiced by David McCullough, guides the moviegoers through history lessons, like the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression, Prohibition, and the New Deal. There are names, dates, and places mentioned, and it is done in a style that doesn’t feel like a lecture, but actually interests you.
Now let’s get back to the “Oscar buzz” issue. Do I think this movie deserves it? Oh, yes. Maguire, Bridges, and Cooper all gave incredible performances, and all deserve acting nods. The screenwriter/director, Gary Ross, helmer of the wonderful movie Pleasantville and Oscar-nominated writer of the screenplays for Big and Dave, deserves a nod as well. Randy Newman’s score is great, and so is John Schwartzman’s cinematography. If there were any justice in the world, they would give Macy some Oscar love too. His performance as Tick Tock steals every scene. He might not have been in the movie long enough to get a nomination notice, but Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her five minutes in Shakespeare in Love, so stranger things have happened. I honestly think the greatest obstacle this movie will have to face will be that it is being released in July. The Academy has notoriously short attention spans and may not remember this movie come nominating time.
I encourage all of you to check out the first serious Oscar contender of the year, Seabiscuit. Sure, there are several points in this two and a half hour movie that I thought it was supposed to end, but it goes on to tell one more tale of inspiration. This is an adaptation of a best-selling novel by Laura Hillenbrand, and I’ve heard from several people who read the book that they love it. I haven’t read it myself, but I think the book fans will like the movie version. This movie made me a little misty-eyed by the end, and I didn’t think I would get that way over a horsey movie. Check this flick out, and then stay tuned to see if it wins the Oscar horse race.
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