reviewed by Steve Sailer
UPI, July 24, 2003
"Seabiscuit," the much anticipated 1930s racehorse biopic, turns out to be 2003's "Road to Perdition:" a gorgeous but dramatically inert lump of summer Oscar-bait. Writer-director Gary Ross' long, sentimental, and predictable script is an object lesson in how not to adapt a good book.
I didn't read Laura Hillenbrand's gripping nonfiction bestseller about the life and times of the wildly popular thoroughbred until after I saw the movie, but fans of the book are likely to be even more disappointed.
First, "Seabiscuit" should never have been made into a movie. Like many sprawling books (such as "Bonfire of the Vanities," Tom Wolfe's memorable novel and Brian De Palma's disastrous movie), "Seabiscuit" was best suited to be a three night miniseries. Much of what makes Hillenbrand's book so popular is that it allows readers to wallow in peculiar horseracing lore.
For example, at the Tijuana racetrack, where much of the pre-Seabiscuit action centers, stables mucker-outers had for years been dumping horse droppings out back until by the late 1920s there was a mountain of fermenting manure "as big as a grandstand." Jockeys desperate to sweat down to the Bataan Death March-level weights their profession requires made it their private sauna, burying themselves in the chemically combusting pile of poop. One day, though, a flood set the mound rampaging across the racetrack, permanently flattening all the facilities.
The bigger problem is that there isn't even room for what Ross crams into his 140-minute movie. The book has four main characters, which is about two too many for you to get know any well enough to care.
The film starts with Seabiscuit's owner, a schmoozing auto dealership mogul played by Jeff Bridges, repeating his role from "Tucker." Then, there's the ex-cowboy trainer, who's taciturn to the point of autism with his own species but almost telepathic with horses, portrayed by Oscar-winner Chris Cooper ("Adaptation"). Tobey Maguire ("Spiderman") is the world's tallest jockey. Finally, the three come together and we meet the title character, who is played by ten different horses, none of who have the real Seabiscuit's charisma.
Ross rewrites history to inject a bogus political analogy between Seabiscuit and the New Deal. The screenwriter of "Dave" and writer-director of "Pleasantville," Ross is a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis. He tells interviewers that his father Arthur A. Ross, the co-screenwriter of 1954's "Creature from the Black Lagoon," was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist, but I can't find on Google any independent evidence to support his claim.
According to Ross, the plucky little horse's 1938 defeat of the elitist War Admiral gave the Little People a Reason to Hope -- just like the Roosevelt Administration did. Ross even employs folksy-sounding historian David McCullough, narrator of way too many PBS documentaries, to pound home his lesson with lowbrow voice-overs.
Ross simply made up this entire ideological overlay -- the book's author wisely refrained from drawing loopy analogies between the Democratic Party and the sport of kings.
Thoroughbreds are inbred aristocrats. Seabiscuit was actually the grandson of Man O' War, the most blue-blooded horse of the age, and the half-nephew of his archrival War Admiral.
Ross harps on how small Seabiscuit was, but his people actually called him "the big horse" because, although short for a thoroughbred, he was massive, a four-legged Mike Tyson outweighing War Admiral by 80 pounds.
Seabiscuit was a sly, self-indulgent beast, whose favorite activities had been, sensibly enough, sleeping and eating. Then, his trainer coaxed him into finally trying hard in a big race. When he won, he apparently found he loved the attention so much that he made up his equine mind to stop fooling around and never let another horse beat him. The big ham would have been a star in any decade, but Ross can't make him a star in his own movie.
Ross makes up a lot of hokum about how these four wounded souls provided therapy for each other. This would have seemed soppy even on "Oprah," and back in 1938, it would have made the three real men puke. For instance, the director claims the Great Depression wiped out the young jockey's parents and so they tragically had to sell him into indentured servitude. Truthfully, a flood had destroyed his father's factory way back in 1915, and his little hellion of a son had begged to be allowed to leave home to ride the ponies in 1925.
Fortunately, the race footage is exciting, and the quiet scenes, burnished with sunset colors, are lovely, although not up to the supreme artistry of "The Black Stallion." Ross' only amusing character, a radio announcer played by William H. Macy, is borrowed directly from that mysterious and exalted 1979 children's film. Unfortunately, Ross didn't steal its chief aesthetic lesson: show, don't tell.