The New Deal Steed

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What makes Seabiscuit such a winning celebrity is that even before he died, he couldn't do the talk shows, couldn't write his autobiography and hadn't the faintest idea of how much people loved him. He was just an unhandsome little horse with a tendency to oversleep, overeat, act a little nutsy (difficult childhood) and win races.

One of the many good things about writer-director Gary Ross's captivating adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling history of the legendary horse is its refusal to anthropomorphize him. He's what all race horses are—a bundle of ganglia, to which intelligence and personality can be imputed but never proved. Luckily for Seabiscuit, he fell into the hands of three guys as buffeted by fate as he was, and in healing him they healed themselves—and incidentally turned this unlikely critter into a folk hero of Depression-era America.

His owner was wealthy San Francisco car dealer Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who lost his son in an accident and his marriage in the tragedy's aftermath. His trainer was the terminally taciturn Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), who had a flinty sympathy for damaged and derided horseflesh. His principal rider was Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), too big and too angry to be a great jockey, but a man who saw something of his unpromising yet ever striving self in Seabiscuit.

Ross is a filmmaker with a taste for inherently sentimental tales (he wrote Big and Dave, wrote and directed Pleasantville) but the discipline not to play mawkishly to our sentiments. You will be moved by Seabiscuit—but not to tears.

Ross's other major gift is patience. He takes his good-natured time with this movie, filling out his principals' backstories before introducing the horse. He also adds documentary sequences (narrated by David McCullough) that lightly, effectively fill in the social history that shaped these lives. Finally, this is a man unwedded to the three-act structure, perhaps because history is rarely so neatly structured.

The Biscuit, a West Coast horse, wins his big race—a head-to-head encounter with War Admiral, owned by a snooty Eastern establishment figure—which may be the story's natural end, but it's not the true one or the movie's. The horse gets hurt. Pollard gets hurt. They must try to make one last comeback, which overrides conventional movie wisdom as surely as the horse galloped past racing's conventional wisdom.

It's rare—these days damn near impossible—to see a big-bucks, big-studio production take the kind of chances Ross unselfconsciously takes here. What eventually steals over you as Seabiscuit unfolds is that its New Deal America is a lot better than the one we inhabit—more generous and shyly exuberant, less noxiously self-centered and confident. Maybe that's just a movie illusion. But it wouldn't hurt us—politically, socially, humanly—if we began believing we could re-create that sweet, sustaining dream.