Films have a way of reflecting the general mood of the country. They also respond to that prevailing mood almost as if they can sense just what the public needs to see. When times are rough, the economy down, war on the horizon films often turn to themes of struggle and hope. Seabiscuit is such a film. In fact it not only responds to the difficult times of today, if reflects a time in America when the public needed to be able to root for the underdog, or in this case the under-horse. In the nineteen thirties there was a little horse named Seabiscuit. Smaller than most competitive race horses, he seemingly excelled only in eating and sleeping, sort of a couch potato nag. The thing is this horse and the men that believed in him came along in a slice of American history, the depression, when hope was in the same short supply as food and jobs. There was more to this story than the horse, there where the men as well. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) was a self made man. He gained and lost fortunes with his ability to see in others what the world has missed. He saw potential where others viewed only loss. Then there was Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) with his heart reaching out to heal broken horses rather than putting them down. To him a horse was a participant in the sport of kings, not just legs that carried the jockey. Finally there was Red Pollard played by Tobey Maguire, fresh off of his blockbuster hit Spider-man. Pollard was blind in one eye, seen by most as fit only to clean the stables. Together these four misfits took not only the sport of horse racing by storm they gave hope to a country on the verge of emotional dissolution. Many people at that time could identify with the players in this drama. They felt broken, discarded and without a future yet by seeing the success of this little horse they regained hope. Now, the country is face once again with difficult times and the public has the same need for hope. This film has heart, the ability to give us something to take us away from the concerns we see each night on the news. Speaking to some people in the generation before mine I heard the same thing time and tie again about this horse, he did what no one thought he could. He embodied the spirit of America. When Seabiscuit won against all odds everyone in the country shared in that victory, every won. With so many tarnished heroes around today this film provides what we all need, a pure release form reality.
In order to sell a movie like this on an emotional level you need a cast that can deliver. We got just that. Bridges is one of those actors that pop up in the most unlikely roles. His empathy and boyish charm comes across well on the screen. He presentation here reminded me of his portrayal of Preston Tucker, a man that would not give in not matter what. I canít remember when Bridges has turned in less than his best and this film is no exception. Maguire is rapidly becoming a leading man of incredible versatility. He brought a comic book hero to life with a touch of humanity, he demonstrated the finesse required to play a young man coming of age in Main and here he brings Red to life in a way that we can empathize with this young man coping with a world of despair. Cooper in his role as Tom gives another strong performance. Here is a man that was raised in a simpler world being displaced by the automobile and fighting against the tide of progress. His approach to life is like the way he deals with horses, he slowly opens up exposing himself emotionally. The scenes between the various cast members are some of the best performances of the year. While most films depend on over the top, unrealistic action this film concentrates on the emotional side without pandering to it.
Gary Ross has only one other film as director, Pleasantville. Like Seabiscuit this film focused on a simpler time and the impact those times had on the people that lived through them. Here he provides a sports movie that also works as a drama. Many writer/directors try to control too much of the story, they literally get in the way. Ross does not make this mistake. He lays out the setting, sets up the context and trusts the members of the cast and crew to do their jobs. He also trusts the audience, a rare thing now. He knows the affect this story will have on the viewers so he refrains from hitting us over the head with endless repetition of the expository material. Among those in the crew he trusted was cinematographer, John Schwartzman. Schwartzman gets us closer to horse racing than I thought was possible. He use of inventive camera angles and lighting is amazing. You are in the race; your heart will pound as the horses close in and surround you. Coupled with the incredible sound track you are a participant not just a viewer of the race.
This DVD is one of the best mastered discs I have seen in a long time. The Dolby 5.1 audio pounds your speakers during the races yet during the dialogue intensive scenes provide a crisp, clear reproduction. The sound stage itself is well constructed with a great deal of ambience present in the rear speakers. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is remarkably clear. The color palette produces a realistic and accurate tonal balance. The extras provided are not only enjoyable to view they are informative, giving you not only a look at the process of making this film but also a sense of what those times where like and some insight into why Seabiscuit was so import to the nation. The commentary by Ross and Steven Soderbergh was for the most part lively and held my interest. For those that opt for the deluxe set you also get real footage of the all important show down race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral as well as the HBO first look feature and the Seabiscuit documentary. In all this film gives more than most can deliver, characters you can care about and a story that will draw you in.