Seabiscuit (PG)

Gary Ross (140 mins), starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper

After Girl Power, Horse Power. Seabiscuit isn't just a movie about a racehorse, it's an American epic about fortitude and the never-say-die spirit of the underdog. Gary Ross, adapting from Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller, has a ready-made legend on his hands but decides to load the beast with a burden of historical significance that its legs can scarcely carry. The way this film tells it, Seabiscuit was not only a superior 1930s thoroughbred but a faith healer, talisman and saviour of a generation. This four-legged wonder seemed to do just about everything but run for President, and had it been persuaded to, would obviously have left the rest of the field standing.

Of course, one expects triumphalism in a baseball or a boxing movie, and it shouldn't be any different for a yarn about horse-racing. But there's telling a story and there's plonking down a monument for our applause. The warning signs come early as the film kicks off with a photomontage about the American automobile industry, a mystifying little history lesson that, frankly, we could do without. It serves as a lengthy introduction to Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a Buick salesman who made a fortune but then lost a young son in a car accident. His story unfolds in tandem with those of Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a shrewd old horse-trainer who likes to camp out in the wild, and of a young firebrand, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), abandoned by his once-affluent family and now scraping by as an amateur boxer and jockey.

One wonders at the plodding way the film sets up this triumvirate. Perhaps the film-makers are following the method of the horse itself: Seabiscuit starts a race slowly, holds steady until the last turn, and then finishes like a freight train. Somewhere along the line, I felt sure that once the introductions were through, the film would gather momentum before it too broke into a gallop. And the strength of its cast argues likewise. Jeff Bridges has done this jovial entrepreneur-optimist before in Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and just watching that smile crinkle up his face is enough to convince you of Howard's thoroughgoing decency. Chris Cooper has been drastically "aged up" for the old geezer - the kind of role the late Richard Farnsworth was made for - and he gives it his laconic best, though surely there are juicier roles available to a man who has just copped a Best Support Oscar for Adaptation?

Tobey Maguire is the weak link, his soft, wide-eyed stare not at all suited to the bantam Pollard, whose aggression keeps spilling over. Maguire is a quiet, dreamy sort, like the boy he played for Gary Ross in Pleasantville. Toughness looks as false on him as his carrot-top dye job.

Pollard's is also the story the film really short-changes: his happy family life is so suddenly and cruelly interrupted that we feel there must be some comeback to it, either from the parents who deserted him or else one of his siblings we saw around the dinner table. A whole Spielbergian back-story is waiting to happen - and it never does. Not that the film is shy of damaged souls. Its recurring line, "You don't throw a whole life away just because it's banged up a little", is applied both to Seabiscuit, a recalcitrant animal that experts initially dismissed because of his small size, and to the whole of Depression America, thronged with citizens who have lost their livelihoods and now form pale-faced queues for bread. We are asked to believe that Seabiscuit was The People's Horse, because he was a plucky contender that triumphed against the odds. Well, maybe he was, but it's very tiresome to have this explained to us through archive newsreels and a portentous History Channel voiceover. I mean, thanks for the lecture, guys, but we paid to watch a drama. Either Gary Ross doesn't trust the material to work by itself, or else he doesn't trust audiences to get it.

In any case, hopes that the pace will be upped from a gentle trot are in vain. Indeed, after the suffocating blandness of its first hour - this is a long film - my heart sank when both horse and jockey are written off after terrible falls, for it's almost as if their convalescence is a cue for the film to start over. Can the broken Biscuit be put together again? Will Pollard ever ride another horse? These were probably issues of agonising uncertainty at the time, but Ross contrives them so feebly that they are never felt as real setbacks. And the stultifying visual clunkiness of his style hits a low as the camera tracks down to compare the bandaged legs of horse and human. It's hard to think of another sports movie so lacking in suspense. The major race is a money-spinner between Seabiscuit and a huge brute of a horse named War Admiral, but the film is more interested in the build-up and the stable rivalry than the contest itself. The outcome never seems in doubt.

Seabiscuit does have one thing going for it, and that's William H Macy as a garrulous radio commentator whose stock-in-trade is an almost Runyonesque hyperbole. Every time the camera cuts to him gabbling excitedly through his inane sports-spiel ("Who's Seabiscuit gonna race next? Pegasus?!) the movie jolts into life, and I blessed Macy for these little comic sallies. God knows, the film could use more of him and a great deal less of the pious commentary. It scarcely needs saying that American audiences have responded with more fervour to this picture, and its stirring redemptive tone will surely recommend itself to Academy voters come Oscar time. Nobody will deny that it's a very wholesome entertainment. Should you chance it for a night out? Neigh, neigh, and thrice neigh.

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