MOVIECUBE — OCTOBER 2013 — ADAPTATION
Charles Howard is working in a quiet bicycle shop when he is asked to repair a man’s car—at that time a brand new technology. Not only is he able to repair it, but he also ends up improving it, and being good with machines as well as words, Howard quickly becomes a top car dealer in California. Effortlessly selling the future, the American Dream, he earns himself enough money to become one very wealthy man. But an accident takes away his son’s life, and all the money in the world doesn’t help his wife to cope. She then divorces him.
Johnny ‘Red’ Pollard grows up in a harmonious family, he is smart, well-read, and his love for horses doesn’t miss his parents’ eyes. But then the Great Depression of 1930’s America comes and lives are changed, and Red is left to live with a horse trainer, his parents hoping that he will have a better life, with a proper home, proper meals.
Chance brings Howard to meet Tom Smith, an odd horse trainer often shunned by others because of his unconventional actions. He takes a wounded racehorse in, mending his injury, instead of letting him get shot—the thing to do to injured racehorses that are deemed unable to do their jobs any longer. Howard tries his fortune in horse racing and with Smith’s advice, ends up buying Seabiscuit, a failed thoroughbred racehorse, preferring to spend his time sleeping and eating rather than winning races. And who better to ride Seabiscuit than Red Pollard, himself a failed jockey, beaten by life and the Depression.
There’s nothing really out of the ordinary about the film, it plays out like a sports movie, it has got its underdogs that we root for, and exhilarating race scenes—the latter quite an extraordinary feat tackled by the filmmakers. Gary Ross has his own meticulous approach in doing action sequences, detailing every move and every shot, writing all the things he needs to shoot in every frame on paper, and this one must have been no exception. The camera takes us up close to the action, lets us witness how Seabiscuit fiercely eye his competition, and with the sound of those hooves pounding on the earth, it’s hard not to get into the excitement.
All those expected sports film formula aside, it is still one hell of a lovable film. We see all these characters given their second chances in life, and you want them to succeed. And the ones responsible for making this film what it is—the three actors. Forget the red and blue latex, here Tobey Maguire is wonderful as Red with all his baggage, his anger, his hurt, his determination and eventually—his gratitude. Jeff Bridges gives a heartfelt performance as Charles Howard, with his warmth and kindness never quite apart from his sorrowfulness. He’s a businessman, he wants his horse to win, but somehow we never once believe that he prioritizes money over Red’s wellbeing. And then there’s Chris Cooper. Compared with the other two characters, Cooper’s Smith is not given much background information, but perhaps great actors don’t need that and Cooper is sure one great actor. He’s one of those effortless chameleons who seem to have no problem transforming into whatever yet unfortunately, is rarely given the sole spotlight. But no matter, in Seabiscuit the chemistry between the three is what makes the film memorable and every character is given enough portions and not more—even Seabiscuit himself.
One of the best things in the film is how they never overdramatize Seabiscuit as a horse. Yes he bonds with Red, yes we want to think that he understands when Red talks to him. But he’s never overly romanticized, and we need that bit of realism in a sports biopic like this.
Elizabeth Banks plays Howard’s second wife, Marcela Zabala, and William H. Macy steals scenes as ‘Tick Tock’ McLaughlin, a radio announcer equipped with an array of odd tools that produce comical sound effects—you can’t not love his scenes. Black and white photographs of the US during the Great Depression are interspersed with the film scenes and American historian David McCullough’s narrations accompany these photographs whenever they are shown, and it works.
There’s a lot of green in the film, and houses with parquet floors, creating a very cool tone all throughout, as if you can smell the fresh air. Costume designer Judianna Makovsky also helps all the characters look good, probably too good sometimes, so yeah, it’s a good-looking film, but its drama and its characters still stand at the center stage.