Seabiscuit Review

If anyone (of probably more advanced years than yourself) grumbles that “they don’t make movies like they used to anymore” then one way to put them right is pointing them in the direction of this old-fashioned story. Although based on the (true) story of a racehorse called Seabiscuit, it also covers a much broader picture of not just those around the horse, but also the story of America’s collapse and recovery in the first half of the twentieth century.

The film actually spends a great deal of time before Seabiscuit is even involved, taking the story threads of the three people who would come to be involved in the horse’s success as they converge. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) starts out manufacturing and selling bicycles but soon moves on to the automobile as it grows in popularity. Travelling in the other direction is Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) – who would go on to be Seabiscuit’s trainer – as he finds his simpler life being eroded by the new technology of Howard’s new industrial America. The third party is “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a promising jockey (and occasional prize-fighter) who would go on to ride Seabiscuit to many of his greatest victories.

After suffering both a family tragedy and the effects of the crash and depression, Howard re-evaluates his life, and together with Smith they buy, train and race Seabiscuit, a horse that everyone else thinks has no chance of winning any race. But with Red Pollard in the saddle suddenly he is winning, and winning everything. With all the races on the West coast won, their sights are set on War Admiral, the champion horse of the East coast establishment, who’s owners regard Seabiscuit as not even worthy of being in the same race as their great champion. After declining numerous challenges, only a touring campaign by Seabiscuit’s team to raise huge public support causes War Admiral’s owners to finally relent to a one-on-one challenge race, which would go on to be one of the most famous events in American sporting history.

Adapted from the bestseller “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hillenbrand, the story of Seabiscuit is as much about a difficult time in American history when the people needed to know that a “little guy” could still be a success. Seabiscuit fitted the bill perfectly at that time. As for the movie itself, the cast are all excellent, with Bridges playing a similar role to the titular one he did in another historical drama, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. It’s rounded out by fine performances from Chris Cooper and Tobey Maguire as the rest of the group. Mentions too should go to the always excellent William H Macy who provides comic relief as “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin, the madcap radio presenter who provides a humorous backdrop to Seabiscuit’s races. Credit must also go to Gary Stevens who plays George Woolf, the stand-in jockey for Seabiscuit. Stevens is a real-life jockey (and one of the best ever at that); sports stars taking on acting roles is usually a recipe for disaster, but Stevens does an excellent job here, and you certainly wouldn’t know that this was his first acting role. A new career awaits after his retirement from racing. It’s also an impressively shot and directed movie, with both the landscapes and racetracks captured beautifully. The racing sequences are also cleverly shot, putting the viewer right into the middle of the action.

On the negative side of things, it is understandable why director Ross chose a narration to explain the historical backdrop for the story, as opposed to creating irrelevant scenes to do this. But often this narration can get a little twee, and it sometimes makes you feel like you’re watching an extended episode of The Waltons. Additionally, being adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s book rather than the straight historical facts carries over some of the historical inaccuracies and license with the truth that a bestseller may have. Seabiscuit would never have entered a race with starting gates with mechanical doors for instance, these are a much more recent innovation. And where’s the gambling? Betting is obviously a huge element to horse racing, but you certainly wouldn’t get that impression from this movie as it’s barely seen or mentioned. It doesn’t detract from the story but it’s a strange omission.

A big summer movie that wasn’t a sequel, or based on a comic, or an old television series, Seabiscuit has been rightly nominated for many awards. Some may find its old-fashioned feel a little too schmaltzy for their tastes, but it cannot be denied that this is a well filmed, directed and acted piece of cinema. You don’t have to be a horse racing addict to appreciate it

This is a movie noted for its cinematography, and the 2.35:1 anamorphic image doesn’t disappoint. Whether it’s panoramic landscape views or close-in action of races, this film looks excellent throughout, and this transfer certainly does it justice.

Both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks are provided here, and both are impressive. The debate rages on, but on my system the DTS track as usual provides the fuller and more expansive soundstage. As you would expect, the key moments of the film when powerful sound is required are during the racing sequences, and both tracks deliver the power and clarity needed. At other times the use of all channels is effective and clear.

A further audio descriptive track (in Dolby Surround) is additionally provided for the visually impaired.

There are a few extras presented on this disc, though curiously a number of items present on the single disc region 1 edition (such as Jeff Bridges’ photo gallery) are omitted. What is here is the following:

A commentary featuring director Gary Ross and Stephen Soderbergh is provided; what you may ask is Soderbergh doing here as he had nothing to do with this film? In fact Ross and Soderbergh have collaborated on previous movies, and he sits in here to talk through many aspects of the film with Ross. This works better than many solo effort commentaries as the two person format keeps it busy as they discuss such things as the technical challenges of making a period movie, the story itself, and the issues of bringing a script based on a true story to the screen. In all this is a good commentary that’s definitely worth listening to.

The main featurette is Bringing the legend to life: The making of Seabiscuit. Starting off as the usual “love-in” that these press-kit derived pieces so often are, it does move on to better things, looking at the issues of adapting the book into a film, how many “Seabiscuit”’s were actually used (hint: more than one), and designing and shooting a horse race scene. Certainly worth a look, but at only fifteen minutes it’s somewhat brief.

Following on from this is Anatomy of a movie moment where director Gary Ross takes us through one particular sequence in the movie. He explains his technique for adapting screenplay to film, what to show (and what not to), and what he feels should be highlighted to fully bring out the emotion of the scene. Certainly an interesting piece, and probably even more so to any budding filmmakers who may be watching, but at just five minutes, it’s somewhat brief as before.

Finally, there is The 1938 Match Race – Seabiscuit vs War Admiral, original newsreel footage of the actual race itself. Judge for yourself if the writers accurately represented what happened in the real race.

DVD-ROM Content
There are no DVD-ROM elements available on the disc.

Final Thoughts
Seabiscuit may not appeal to everyone, with its somewhat sentimental style and old-fashioned “feel-good” attitude. But it is a beautifully filmed, well acted and well directed film, and you certainly don’t need to be a horse racing addict to appreciate it. The disc looks good and sounds good, featuring a DTS track not available on the region 1 versions. However, and I haven’t had to write this for a while, the extra material is short of many items featured on even the basic version of the region 1 edition, let alone the two-disc special edition. You will therefore need to decide whether you value the DTS track over the missing extra material when deciding which version to go for.

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