'Seabiscuit' true to Hillenbrand's book

Rich Podolsky reviews the highly anticipated "Seabiscuit" and reports that the film lives up to the hype.

Updated: July 25, 2003, 2:54 PM ET
By Rich Podolsky | Special to ESPN.com

In "Seabiscuit" writer/director Gary Ross has created a film with deep emotional impact, while keeping true to Laura Hillenbrand's runaway bestseller, "Seabiscuit, An American Legend."

"Seabiscuit," for those that don't know, is the story of a battered horse and three broken men, who come together giving hope to a nation during the Great Depression. It's the best sports film since "Hoosiers," and in some ways remarkably reminiscent to Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life."

The first thing that hits you about Ross' adaptation is that the story is the most important thing. Scrapping opening credits, Ross begins immediately to tell Hillenbrand's story. He begins with black and white stills of Henry Ford's Model T automobile and assembly line. "It was the beginning and end of imagination all at the same time," the narrator David McCullough tells us.

By cleverly using this documentary style of storytelling throughout the film, Ross allows the audience to understand the setting and background pieces to the film without using contrived characters to explain it.

It is the story of three men: Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), the most successful Buick dealer in the West; Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a displaced cowboy who turns to training horses; and Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a well-schooled boy who turns to the only other thing he knows-riding horses-after his family hits hard times.

While Smith and Pollard had difficulties staying out of bread lines in the '30s, Howard suffered his problems with the news of the death of his 10-year-old son. Soon his marriage dissolves and his life spirals downward. Howard, though, gets introduced to Thoroughbred racing when friends take him to Agua Caliente in Tijuana and soon is in search of a trainer.

Coming upon Smith he is told to "forget about him, he's a crackpot who lives in the bushes." But Howard sees him more as a horse whisperer. When he asks Smith why he's "fixin' " a colt that will never race again, Smith replies, "You don't throw a whole life away, just because a part of it is broken." It is the line that becomes the theme of the picture.

Instead of purchasing an expensive 2-year-old for his new owner, Smith sees something inherent in an over-raced, over-whipped bay named Seabiscuit and purchases him for a few thousand dollars. When asked if he's fast, Smith responds, "It ain't just speed. It's heart. You want something that's not afraid to compete."

And like Howard had seen something in Smith, and Smith had seen something in Seabiscuit, it was an unruly Seabiscuit who saw something in Pollard, allowing him to be the only jockey to get close to him. Despite his poor riding record, Pollard is hired and together the four of them heal each other and make racing history while doing so.

Part of that history was the classic match race between Seabiscuit and Triple Crown winner War Admiral. It was much more than a competition between two great horses. It also became a contest between two distinctly different lifestyles: the East Coast establishment of bankers and horsemen against a battered nation that championed a ragtag team of three displaced men and an unlikely horse.

But Pollard, doing a favor for a friend, gets thrown from a horse during a workout and breaks his leg in 11 different places. Replacing him is George Woolf (Gary Stevens), known as "the Iceman" and recognized as the world's best rider. The race took place Nov. 1, 1938 at Pimlico in Maryland, but was staged at Keeneland in Lexington, with 3500 extras dressed in period clothing. It is a spectacularly staged scene.

The other thing that hits you as you watch "Seabiscuit" is how amazing the racing sequences actually are. They are so authentic you feel like a jockey in the race yourself. It captures the sheer power of Thoroughbred racing and the thundering hooves echo within you. Cinematographer John Schwartzman is the one to thank.

Bridges (as Howard), a four-time Oscar nominee, and Cooper (as Smith), who won the Oscar last year for "Adaptation," were perfectly cast. Stevens may have a new career after his racing days after his splendid job playing Woolf.

Also flawless is Bill Macy playing the role of "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin, a rapid-fire radio reporter/tout, a character Ross created to advance the story and inform the audience. Macy is so funny in his scenes, it reminds one of Bill Murray's similar appearances in Caddy Shack.

But it is Maguire's performance as Pollard that pulls the picture together. It is a role Ross always had Maguire in mind for. While many will remember him as "Spider-Man," his performance in "Cider House Rules" was an indication of the high-level work he displays here.

Near the end of the film, when Howard is asked by reporters why Seabiscuit had become so successful, he responds, "We gave him a chance," and at the same time knowing he's speaking to millions of out-of-work Americans, he adds, "Sometimes all you need is a second chance."

After getting a second chance, the three men grew through their relationship with Seabiscuit, and rebuilt their lives in the process.

Rich Podolsky

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.