In 1930s California, wealthy businessman Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) meets and falls in love with the beautiful Marcela Zapata (Elizabeth Banks). Howard is a self-made man who's built a fortune selling automobiles but lost his family when his son died in a car accident and his wife left him. He's ready for a second chance at life. Marcela's a horse-racing enthusiast and soon Howard develops an interest in the sport himself. He establishes a stable on his ranch and hires Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), an eccentric, soft-hearted cowboy as his trainer. In August 1936, the two men buy a small brown colt called Seabiscuit which was once tipped for great things but is extremely willful and has consistently underperformed on the track. Smith sees something in the horse and Howard agrees. The same month Smith meets Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a struggling young jockey who has quite a temper himself. The trainer decides he's the perfect rider for Seabiscuit. The team raises a few eyebrows in the racing community - a tall jockey on a small horse flies in the face of accepted wisdom. Their mockery turns to admiration when Seabiscuit starts to win. And not only win but build up a huge public following. In the middle of the Great Depression, a time of great hardship for many Americans, the plucky little horse becomes a symbol of hope.
Adapted from the bestselling biography by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit is the second film from Gary Ross, director of Pleasantville and screenwriter of Dave and Big. Ross is probably the closest equivalent today's Hollywood has to Frank Capra, the legendary director of It's A Wonderful Life and Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Like Capra, Ross has specialised in packaging sincere, homespun messages in feel-good comedies. This time he's made a straight drama about real events and real people but the formula remains the same. You laugh, you cry, you cheer, you feel good. Some object to this kind of manipulation on principle and it's true that such films can be gag-inducing when done badly. However, this is top quality corn. It's obviously a labour of love for the director and it's made with such skill and sincerity that you can't help but give in and be swept along.
It doesn't hurt that Ross is working with one of the best casts of the year. Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper are perfect choices for the three central roles. It's thanks to their subtle, affecting performances that Seabiscuit never becomes an all-out cheese-fest. Still, the top acting honours must go to William H Macy, who plays high-spirited radio announcer Tick Tock McGlaughlin. The amusing commentator has become such a worn out cliche of the Hollywood sports movie that Macy deserves all the more credit for finding a fresh approach and breathing new life into it. Behind the scenes contributions are also second to none, from Randy Newman's rousing score to William Goldenberg's editing and John Schwartzman's cinematography, which make the races look far more spectacular and exciting than horse races have any right to look.