Our review of Seabiscuit (Blu-Ray), published May 26th, 2009, is also available.
A great American story brought to life.
The famous racehorse Seabiscuit was an underdog who unexpectedly reached greatness through sheer determination. The same could be said about the book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, which topped the bestseller charts far longer than anyone anticipated.
A film was announced shortly afterward, and finally arrived on theater screens in the summer of 2003. As was true of the book, few expected the film to do well, especially among the stiff summer entertainment competition. But like the horse and the book, Seabiscuit the movie was an unexpected success.
Now Seabiscuit, a Best Picture Oscar nominee, is available on DVD from Universal.
Facts of the Case
After the deaths of both his young son and his marriage, automobile baron Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, The Contender, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) survives the stock market crash of 1929. Afterward, he decides to get into competitive horseracing. He finds the ideal trainer in Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, Adaptation, Lone Star), a loner who employs unusual but effective methods in horse whispering and training. While looking for a potential horse, Smith notices a misfit horse named Seabiscuit. He senses something special in the horse and convinces Howard to buy him. For a jockey, they find Johnny "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire, Pleasantville, Spider-Man). Pollard, who has been involved with horses since he was a young man, takes to Seabiscuit like a duck to water.
Seabiscuit, the underdog, starts a winning streak that surprises even the hardest cynics. Meanwhile, Howard attempts to get the owners of War Admiral, the championship horse (and Seabiscuit relative, although the film leaves that tidbit out), to agree to a race where the winner takes all. Several obstacles suddenly pop up, threatening all involved. Can the little horse that could overcome these problems and win?
Seabiscuit is great epic filmmaking, the kind you rarely see anymore. Some may say Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl would be another example, and so it is. However, that film drowns itself in overdone special effects and is overlong by at least a half-hour. Seabiscuit avoids the traps of visual effects and excessive length by telling its story as simply and cleanly as possible. There are some visual effects involving the racing sequences, but they avoid being just "neat" effects, blending into the background naturally. To me, the best effects are the ones that aren't as obvious as they seem. Writer/director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) gets that crucial element exactly right.
What is incredible about the film is how Ross keeps the audience involved. He remembers not only to keep things interesting visually, but also to get us involved emotionally. Some accused him of being sentimental, but sentiment is what this story revolves around. It's about a group of underdogs who overcome adversity by working together. It's reminiscent of David Lean's best work, in size and scope as well as characterizations. Ross doesn't resort to the dumbing-down tactics favored by Hollywood in biopics. Instead, he wisely realizes that the only way for an audience to accept his film is through living, breathing characters.
Some will no doubt take Ross to task for leaving out some facts. That is to be expected -there is just no way to include every fact that occurred over decades of time, even if the studio would support such a lengthy film. If you want all of the facts, read Laura Hillenbrand's book, on which Ross' screenplay is based. (Some retail copies of the disc include the book as a free gift.) Besides, what is more important is that Ross tells the story as coherently as possible within the time constraints. If that means a few facts are left out, it's no big deal. After all, Mutiny on the Bounty, now a confirmed classic, played with the facts and few complained then.
Ross divides his film into three acts. Act One shows the backstory of our main characters. Act Two involves the training of the horse. Act Three is the payoff. This structure is important in telling a real-life story and again, Ross gets it right. The only flaw is with the ending, which doesn't end as much as it simply runs out of time. I would have liked at least a coda, if not twenty more minutes.
Like Lean, Ross provides his film with voluptuous visuals. He and his cinematographer, John Schwartzman (The Rookie) use a color palette similar to the classic three strip Technicolor technique popular in classic cinema. Primary colors, such as reds, blues and yellows abound, as do the variant secondary color mixes—the greens and such like. As a result, Seabiscuit looks bold and bright, sometimes so bright that you will need sunglasses if you choose to see it theatrically (it's still playing in many areas at this writing, thanks to Oscar season). Ross' use of widescreen is excellent, making the most of every frame. He fills the screen while keeping things isolated, suggesting loneliness and separation from reality. It's brilliant work.
The acting is flawless, with three lead performances providing a strong anchor. Jeff Bridges has long been one of Hollywood's most reliable actors, filling roles that few others would. His Charles Howard provides the film's emotional anchor, by way of Bridges' realistic, natural performance. The tragedies he goes through in the film's first act allow us to get involved with his character and root for him to finally experience some happiness, which he ultimately does.
Chris Cooper at last received the recognition he deserved from Hollywood with his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Adaptation. It was long overdue for one of the hardest working character actors in the business, a chameleon who can slip into any role. It is impressive to see Cooper go from the slimy Laroche, his character in Adaptation, to Seabiscuit's honest and earnest Tom Smith. The contrast shows incredible range, and the fact that the Academy decided to overlook his work in this picture is a shame.
Last but not least, there is Tobey Maguire. His early work in such films as The Ice Storm and Pleasantville (coincidentally, Gary Ross' directorial debut!) showed great potential. He may have had a huge box office success with Spider-Man, but that film didn't allow him to showcase his strengths as an actor. His work in Seabiscuit is a pleasant reminder and reassurance of Maguire's natural acting talent. The fact that this was also a personal project (Maguire co-produced it) must have given him extra incentive to work hard on his performance. Red Pollard is an injured man—bodily and emotionally—and Maguire gives Pollard the little touches that make the performance sparkle.
All this blends together to form one of the very best films of 2003, third on my list of the year's Top Ten.
Universal has released separate widescreen and full frame DVD editions of Seabiscuit. The widescreen version is the one I have reviewed here. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (not 2.35:1 as advertised on the keep case) is as perfect as DVD owners often desire. It is stunningly beautiful to watch. Colors are gorgeous and vivid, a stark contrast to the mediocre black and white photography of the 1949 film that also told Seabiscuit's story. The lack of grain in the image thrilled me, as the original theatrical presentation showed quite a bit of grain. There are no blemishes or defects in the image, as far as I can tell. This is as good as video transfers get.
Audio is presented solely in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. I was disappointed with the lack of a DTS track, as Universal has included this feature in some films that didn't need it (Bruce Almighty, for example). The superb sound work done on Seabiscuit would have benefited from the extra channels provided by DTS Surround. As it is now, DD 5.1 is good enough. It sounds great through most of the film's duration, with the exception of one or two scenes that suffer from light hiss.
Considering that this is a Universal release, the fact that extras are included is surprising. We begin with a commentary track, featuring writer/co-producer/director Gary Ross along with Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh. The Q&A format of this commentary keeps it going along at a brisk pace, never becoming dull or static. Ross shares a great deal of information about the production and origins of the film. This is a must for viewers who want to learn more about filmmaking in general.
The Making of Seabiscuit is the standard "making-of" featurette that you often see in between movies on a premium cable station. Compared to the excellent commentary, this short comes up…well…short.
Seabiscuit: Racing Through History is an all-too-brief (20 minutes) documentary look into the history of the famous racehorse. It's interesting, but if you want more in-depth information, read the Hillenbrand book.
Anatomy of a Scene consists of Gary Ross taking you step by step through building a scene, from screenplay to celluloid. Ross shows himself to be an intelligent, thoroughly prepared director. Unfortunately, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences couldn't find a place for Ross at the banquet table when they doled out the Oscar nominations for Best Director.
A photo gallery is next. This is not your routine gallery—actor Jeff Bridges took several black-and-white snapshots during the film's production and shares them here. He's done a striking job, even making some professional photographers look amateurish by comparison. If you love photography, you'll definitely want to check our Bridges' fine work.
Seabiscuit's theatrical trailer rounds out this package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The 1949 Warner Bros. production The Story of Seabiscuit, starring Barry Fitzgerald and Shirley Temple, was released on disc as the new Seabiscuit film was entering theaters. Avoid the 1949 picture at all costs. It plays fast and loose with the facts, not showing enough of the backstory that makes this a great tale. Adding insult to injury is the film's devotion to a romance involving Temple's character, which is not only unnecessary to the story but also frightfully dull. Why anyone would spend $19.98 on this disc when for a little bit more they could own Gary Ross' film is beyond my comprehension.
With a suggested retail price of $28.95, only you can determine whether you will want to purchase this disc for your collection. I would recommend it for purchase, but then again, I'm a fan of sweeping epics like this one. If you're unsure, rent it first.
There's also a deluxe collector's edition, featuring a second disc of extras and some additional bonus material for a much steeper price ($39.99).
All associated with this fine film are acquitted and free to go.
Universal has done such good work with this disc that I am almost inclined to forgive them for past mistakes.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Gary Ross and Steven Soderbergh
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