Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling account of an underdog horse that lifted the nation's spirits during the Great Depression, Seabiscuit is a coffee-table history of America, shot in finely burnished hues and narrated by David McCullough for maximum legitimacy. As a heaping slice of Americana, it goes down as easily as a steaming bowl of Quaker Oats, so wholesome and appealing that few could refuse to swallow. If writer-director Gary Ross is to be believed, the pint-sized colt carried far heavier burdens than its oversized jockey: A victory for Seabiscuit was also a victory for democracy, entrepreneurs, the common man, the emerging West, the New Deal, and the can-do American spirit that survived the Depression intact. As history, the film is shamelessly airbrushed and transparent, yet the inflated stakes lift the story on a rousing and triumphant arc, winning all the ovations that it's so anxious to drum up for itself. To keep the hyperbole in check, Ross cast Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Tobey Maguire, three wonderfully understated actors who play Seabiscuit's owner, trainer, and jockey, respectively, with a warm assurance as bracing as a well-worn shoe. Each man, to some degree, saddles the right horse for his shot at redemption. Bridges plays Charles Howard, a self-made car magnate who takes an interest in the track after his only son dies in an accident; Cooper, as mysterious and taciturn trainer Tom Smith, embodies the antiquated cowboy values of the Old West; and Maguire, as journeyman jockey Red Pollard, sees much of himself in the angry, discarded horse in need of a second chance. Upon discovering Seabiscuit, a well-pedigreed colt that never developed into more than a demoralized sparring partner for other racehorses, the gritty trio electrifies the country with six consecutive victories, leading to a storied match race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral. (Not to be outdueled in the metaphor department, War Admiral represents old money, class privilege, capitalist excess, and East Coast snobbery.) The racing scenes in Seabiscuit are staged for all the marbles, ladled liberally with psychological, emotional, and symbolic baggage. Though the results are a matter of record, the uplift is nevertheless intoxicating, even enough to compensate for a film that routinely substitutes corny iconography for real imagination and vision. Ross could have used more characters like the scene-stealing William H. Macy, whose alliterative, Walter Winchell-like radio gossip provides a much-needed break from the film's feel-good bromides. A more challenging and rewarding adaptation might have actually run the race before trotting to the winner's circle.
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