According to author Lauren Hillenbrand, in 1938, a horse called Seabiscuit was the most written about subject in 1938. There were more articles about Seabiscuit than Roosevelt, Hitler, or the Great Depression. Seabiscuit was an unlikely winner or a racehorse, he was too small, too lazy, and too temperamental. However, his success caught the eye of the nation, who found in him an unlikely hero in a time when people needed something to believe in. Seabiscuit is a sentimental story, one that feels like it could only exist in a movie. This is probably why Hillenbrand's novel has been on the best-seller lists for two years. The film and novel is just as much about three men, Charles Howard, Tom Smith, and Johnny "Red" Pollard as it is about Seabiscuit. The three were Seabiscuit's owner, trainer, and jockey, and the film deftly weaves their three stories of renewal together.

Heck, the horse doesn't even show up for nearly an hour. The film begins telling the backgrounds of the three men. All three are broken men, dealing with some sort of loss or rejection. Howard (Jeff Bridges, K-PAX, Masked and Anonymous) built a successful chain of car dealerships on the West Coast, only to have a family tragedy throw him into a deep depression. He made his way down to Mexico, where he met and married Marcela (Elizabeth Banks, Catch Me If You Can, Swept Away). She begins his emotional rehabilitation. Smith (Chris Cooper, Adaptation, The Bourne Identity) was an old-fashioned cowboy, who was discovering that industrialization was slowly destroying his cherished way of life. Howard decides to buy a racehorse, and hires Smith to find one and train it. Smith and Howard find and hire Pollard (Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man, Cats & Dogs), a broken jockey. Pollard is too tall, too heavy, and has an overwhelmingly losing record in races. He is also blind in one eye.

Seabiscuit is their catalyst for renewal. In the absence of a family unit for each man, the three form a sort of family. Seabiscuit begins racing, and unbelievably, begins winning. He is the classic underdog, and this attracts the attention of the public. It gets to the point where anytime Seabiscuit races, the stadiums sell out. Seabiscuit becomes so popular that Howard challenges War Admiral, the East Coast Triple Crown winner to a race to determine who the true champion is. The success of Seabiscuit changes the three men, mending their psychological wounds and helping them to become whole again. Still, obstacles that feel fictional (but are real) appear to try to throw their lives awry again. It seems that no setback can stop Seabiscuit, and this spurs on the three men to greater things. Bridges, Cooper, and Maguire really shine in their role. Each actor gravitates towards a role that spotlights his strengths. Bridges gives a paternal, naturalistic performance, and Cooper is as excellent as always, again completely disappearing into his role. Smith is a loner, a little rough around the edges, but deep down a good man, if not a tad gruff. Maguire is good at evoking sympathy, his Pollard is haunted by his past. Jockey Gary Stevens also comes off pretty well in his motion picture debut, playing, well, a jockey.

Seabiscuit is a wonderfully sentimental story, so it's only fitting that Gary Ross (Pleasantville) directed and adapted it. Ross has a knack for finding the humanity in a story, and there is so much to be found here. Ross begins the story like a documentary, with vintage photographs and narration by historian David McCullough. It gives the impression that a grand, important story is going to begin. McCullough returns every so often to help move the story along. The racing scenes are also stunning. Ross spent a lot of time getting the horses used to the cameras, so they could come up really close. It feels like the viewer is right in the middle of a race, with the thundering sound of hooves all around. In a summer full of lackluster sequels that are big on special effects but low on story, it's nice to see a genuine, heartfelt film emerge.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 20 minutes, Rated PG-13 for some sexual situations and violent sports-related images.

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