Universal // 2003 // 141 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 26th, 2009
The long shot becomes a legend.
Seabiscuit is an uncomplicated slice of old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. Here is a basic rags-to-riches inspirational story that is handsomely crafted, reasonably well-told, and features stellar performances from an A-list cast. It is the sort of film that your mom and dad would hail as the best of the year, a feel-good modern day daguerreotype depicting the beauties and wonders of yesteryear with nostalgic warmth and a great deal of sentiment. Also, it's just a little bit boring.
The film opens with important-sounding, "Once upon a time," narration from David McCullough. You may recall that he also notably narrated the sweeping Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, and he grants this particular tale the same measure of gravitas he provided that series. He waxes eloquent about the rise of the automobile and the simultaneous rise of manufacturing in the United States. "It was the beginning and end of imagination, all at the same time," he says wistfully. Likewise, the film offers us a portrait of characters whose lives constantly seem to end and begin in the same breath.
We are introduced to three characters who will play major roles in this film. The first is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski), an extraordinarily successful Buick salesman who always keeps his eyes on the endless possibilities of the future. Here is a man who is likely to have suspected that we were going to the moon long before President Kennedy made such a declaration. Alas, tragedy is in store for this man. In 1926, his 15-year-old son is killed in an accident. In 1929, he suffers significant losses along with everyone else when the stock market crashes. His visions of the future begin to fade, and he becomes a more reflective and less ambitious man.
We also meet Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, Adaptation), a quiet and peaceful horse trainer who generally prefers spending time with his horses to spending time with people. He is a good man, and a good deal more compassionate than many men in his profession. Not only does he provide his horses with a great deal of TLC, he also continues to believe in them and take care of them in situations where other trainers might have simply had them put down.
Finally, we meet Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire, The Ice Storm), a young man from a reasonably well-to-do family who was forced to begin work as a stable hand when his family took a financial beating due to the depression. He slowly works his way from stable hand to jockey, racing horses to only a moderate degree of success. Red is easily discouraged by losses, and after a few unsuccessful races he begins to flirt with the idea of sinking into a hole of depression.
Seabiscuit tells the tale of how these three men's lives were affected by the titular horse; a beat-up and somewhat lazy animal that nobody paid much attention to. For reasons more personal than professional, all three individuals feel a connection to the horse and determine to give it a shot. Sure enough, after some training and hard work, Seabiscuit becomes a surprise success story that quickly defeats his (admittedly none-too-impressive) East Coast competition. Soon Charles begins to eye a bigger prize. He wants Seabiscuit to race some champion horses, to enter some real competition that will prove to the nation that his horse can take on anyone.
The public soon begins to invest interest in Seabiscuit, and the horse begins to represent the American people. If this beat-up old horse can become a champion, what's to prevent the American people from rising up and becoming successful again, too? It's just the sort of underdog story the public needed at the moment, and the saga of Seabiscuit quickly became a major media event. The media in the film is colorfully personified by William H. Macy (Fargo) as Tick Tock McGlaughlin, a perpetually out-of-breath radio announcer employing every gimmick, alliterative phrase and sound effect he can manage to fit within his limited broadcast time. Despite Macy's rather brief screen time (he's probably on-screen for less than ten minutes here), it's no wonder he received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. Macy brings an unbridled joy to the proceedings that exhilaratingly enlivens a film that occasionally seems determined to become a bronze statue of itself.
The film was helmed by Gary Ross (whose other notable achievements include writing Big and writing/directing Pleasantville), who excels during the key racing sequences. The races, when they arrive, are exciting and well-staged. Ross works with cinematographer John Schwartzman and editor William Goldenberg to create intense yet artfully-portrayed scenes of thundering racing action. Elsewhere, the film looks absolutely marvelous in terms of set and costume design, but the screenplay allows the drama to feel a bit too familiar. This is the sort of film containing numerous moments in which an attentive listener can easily predict the next line of dialogue. "Some people say that we saved this horse, but that isn't exactly true," says Maguire. Just what do you think comes next? If you said, "He saved us," you win a no-prize. Still, the film does what it does with absolute professionalism. I liked it well enough, but I would have liked it better if it had been a little more vigorous and lean (the 141-minute runtime is not justified).
This is the second hi-def transfer the film has received, as Seabiscuit was released on HD-DVD a while back. Both the DVD and HD-DVD generally received very high marks for their transfers, and this Blu-ray deserves to be praised as well. The film looks nothing short of magnificent on Blu-ray, highlighting the rich visuals and bright color palette with vibrancy and depth. There is no evidence of DNR, but the grain that appears is barely noticeable. Blacks are nice and deep but the darker scenes manage to boast very nice contrast. I have no complaints here. This is what Blu-ray is all about, kids. The audio is pretty fantastic too, particular during the racing sequence which provide aggressive and immersive sound. Even so, there's a nice balance throughout the entire track. Not once did I feel the need to adjust the volume level during the film. You're getting better sound than you did on the HD-DVD release here, as the disc offers an upgrade to Lossless DTS-HD. Randy Newman's sweeping Americana score sounds terrific here too, though a piece from Moby halfway through the film disrupts the musical identity of the film in a terribly distracting way.
Extras from the HD-DVD and Deluxe Edition DVD are repeated here. You get a commentary from Ross and Steven Soderbergh, which is a really engaging listen. Soderbergh is always excellent when it comes to audio commentaries, and here he asks Ross some interesting questions that provide revealing answers. You also a handful of fairly lightweight EPK-style featurettes: "Bringing the Legend to Life: The Making of Seabiscuit," "Anatomy of a Movie Moment," "Racing Through History," "HBO First Look," "Winners Circle: The Heroes Behind the Legend," and "The True Story of Seabiscuit." This stuff is complimented by some archival video footage of the real Seabiscuit, a stills gallery and BD-Live.
Though I think that Seabiscuit veers closer to being a conventional sports film (albeit a well-crafted one) than a modern classic, it's still worthwhile viewing that will really please those who feel that, "They don't make films like they used to." A pleasing bit of nostalgia receives a killer transfer that should seal the deal for those contemplating an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 141 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Archival Footage
* Image Gallery