Growing up, the closest I would come to a horse was my best friend Cindy's stable of lifelike plastic Breyer steeds. I treated them as little more than exotic conveyances for my Barbie, while Cindy, who clearly knew a Pinto from a Palomino, patiently explained to me one day what separates the stallions from the geldings. And the few times I went horseback riding as a socially aspiring teenager, I was no match for the equine brain ticking in my horse's enormous head. "Just don't take off running or rear up or anything" I would silently negotiate, using horse telepathy. My ride sometimes took mercy, sometimes not.
It's on this level, I'm sad to say, that Seabiscuit is so fascinating to me. Sure, it has amazing recreations of the "race of the century," it's packed with historical detail and Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper all turn in stellar performances. But I'm just blown away that these are great big animals, people! Animals that can achieve speeds of up to 40 mph on their big sharp hooves!!!
Ahem. All my personal equinophobia aside, Seabiscuit is the kind of movie you don't see much anymore. The story of three down-on-their-luck guys brought together by the hidden talents and perseverance of a horse -- himself repeatedly dismissed as a loser --Seabiscuit is unabashedly earnest. The first section is all backstory and tends to drag. It's necessary, but I admit I didn't get really excited until they introduced little Seabiscuit - all soft and fuzzy and leggy in the way only foals can be - but early on destined for a life of hard knocks. In a way, my reaction to the horse and his story parallels one of the movie's strongest points, that the nation - long beaten down by the Great Depression - took to this horse as if he were the physical embodiment of the WPA and the New Deal and all the other programs designed at the time to help people get back on their feet. In fact, as Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand explains on the "Making Of..." featurette, Seabiscuit was the #1 newspaper topic in 1938, followed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at #2 and Hitler at #3. Fourteen million Americans tuned into the radio broadcast of his historic race with the physically superior War Admiral.
While the "family friendly fare" vibe of the film was a little heavy-handed at times, the movie shines as a bit of lovingly recreated American history. It's also enormous fun to watch, even if you have no desire to get anywhere near 900 pounds or so of quivering horseflesh.
Publication date: 1/22/04