Pale Horse

The one thing missing from Seabiscuit is … Seabiscuit.

Tobey Maguire: a fine rider
Tobey Maguire: a fine rider

The new movie Seabiscuit (Universal), directed and adapted for the screen by Gary Ross, has a warm glow. The dirt flies up from under the horses’ hooves in lyrical slow motion, like a spray of gold dust, and the light brings out the whites of the jockeys’ uniforms, so that these daring riders are transfigured. With their torsos bent parallel to their horses, they seem on the brink of an epiphany, a holy union of man and horse. Randy Newman’s music is plangent, yearning: The chords descend, yet the notes seem to beckon toward something in the distance—I’ll give you 10-to-1 odds it’s “the ineffable.” Newman scored The Natural (1984), and, as in that film, the subtext of every shot is, “Wasn’t that a time!”

A lot of people have been champing at the bit for this movie. Like me, they were thrilled to pieces by Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller about the most celebrated racehorse who ever lived. Hillenbrand told the story of three disparate and traumatized men—multimillionaire Buick distributor Charles Howard (played in the movie by Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire)—who in the 1930s found a common obsession in a horse no one wanted: a smallish, misshapen beast with a lazy disposition and an unruly temper. With his ferocious drive—and his relish for not just winning but coming from behind in high theatrical style—”the Biscuit” would also become the obsession of a traumatized nation. Hillenbrand’s layers of detail don’t slow the story down: They put you deep inside the action, and the book has an easy canter that accelerates into a joyride.

Hillenbrand invokes the pop-culture images of ‘30s horse racing, but chiefly to turn them inside out and expose the grueling reality: the poverty; the pitiless treatment of horses; the lack of safety measures for riders; and the jockeys’ weight-loss rituals that often resulted in illness, dementia, and death. Director Ross, on the other hand, is not a grueling-reality kind of guy. Best known for his scripts of Big (1988) and Dave (1993), and for writing and directing the mild meditation on ‘50s mores Pleasantville (1998), he traffics in clever inversions of pop stereotypes. In Seabiscuit, he clearly relishes the ‘30s bric-a-brac—the angled Stetsons, the dated slang, the reproduction of images from newsreels. He distills Hillenbrand’s reporting into folksy narration, but it plays like those movies you used to sleep through in history class. Ross is most at home with a character he devised for William H. Macy: “Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin, a radio commentator who speaks in a trebly staccato and wields an arsenal of corny sound effects. He doesn’t seem nearly as intimate with his less showy central characters.

In Cooper’s first appearance, he grimly surveys the prairie, once filled with horses and now defaced by an automobile and a barbed-wire fence. The image—of 19th-century America sadly contemplating the frontier’s end—made me groan, but, fortunately, Cooper doesn’t have to do anything so mythopoetic again. His trainer—described by Hillenbrand as translucent to the point of invisibility (“When photographed hatless, he had an unsettling tendency to blend with the sky, so that his eyes hung disembodied”)—is indeed a blur on the screen, like the ghost of Richard Farnsworth. But he doesn’t have Hillenbrand’s words to make him so amusing. More vivid is Bridges, who gets to do an update of his cockeyed optimist auto magnate in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker (1988), only with melancholy bass notes. In making his fortune on Buicks, Howard crowed that the horse-and-buggy was dead, then suffered a bitter tragedy when his 15-year-old son drove one of his cars off the road. Ross makes the son a little kid, maybe 7 or 8: I guess he thought we wouldn’t be as moved by the death of a teenager.

Good as Bridges is, it’s Maguire who dominates Seabiscuit. True, with his soft face and faintly morbid shyness, he’s not the first actor to leap to mind as a wiry, hotheaded jockey and incorrigible boxer. But once I got past the strange casting, I began to see how impressive the performance was. Maguire has dieted himself down to bone and sinew so that his eyes pop out, shining and hungry. It’s too bad that Ross didn’t write a part for the famed jockey Gary Stevens as George Woolf, the “Iceman,” Pollard’s buddy and rival, and that he limited Elizabeth Banks—coiffed to resemble Kate Beckinsale—to a series of pretty reaction shots as Howard’s second wife, Marcela. (Hillenbrand doesn’t write very vividly about Marcela, either, but Ross could have come up with something.)

There is a more vital absence: Seabiscuit. I have a horse-nut friend who felt let down by the book because he wanted to read about a horse and not a bunch of people. I think he’s a tad hard on Hillenbrand, who writes colorfully about both species, but he might as well skip the movie, in which Seabiscuit is played by 10 different, anonymous animals: a Seabiscuit for standing, for biting, for rearing, for winning, for losing. … In The Black Stallion (1979), the director Carroll Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel proved you could photograph a horse to make every ripple of his physique seem expressive without ever anthropomorphizing him. But you look at Seabiscuit and think, “Oh, a horse.” Once in a while there’s a close-up of his eye to suggest that he’s taking everything in, but the charged relationship among horse, trainer, and jockey is alluded to by the narrator without really being dramatized. A couple of pages before the end of the book, Hillenbrand tells the story of the last time Hollywood took a crack at the life of the legendary racehorse. The movie featured Shirley Temple and one of Seabiscuit’s sons, who reportedly had his father’s look but was so slow that that he couldn’t manage to win against the glorified plow horse they’d cast as his most famous adversary, War Admiral. The filmmakers had to scrap the climactic sequence and use newsreel footage of the actual two-horse match. I’d like to see that old movie, however terrible, because the title character might actually be a presence.

I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth—especially in midsummer, between Bad Boys 2 and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Seabiscuit has some stirring sequences, fine performances, and, not incidentally, many excellent hats. The camera plunges you into the middle of the races so that even when you can’t tell what’s happening—which is usually the case—you’re turned on by the speed, the streaking horse bodies, and the thunderous soundtrack. A scene in which Pollard is horribly injured made me dive under my seat; and the team’s attempt at a comeback at Santa Anita is marvelous, with a final shot that suspends the action at just the right mythic instant. But the best thing about Seabiscuit is that it will make a lot of people hungry to read the book. They’ve seen the pretty pictures; now they’ll want to enter the world.

Note: The Story of Seabiscuit will be shown on Friday, July 25 on Turner Classic Movies. Consult your listings for details.