Summer's Mane Event

A lot of people who didn't give a fig about horse racing--and a lot who did--couldn't put down Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," and for good reason. It was a too-good-to-be-true story that was true, with an underdog Thoroughbred and three unforgettable humans at its center: the tenacious, hard-luck jockey Red Pollard, abandoned by his parents at a young age; the taciturn trainer Tom Smith, a Westerner with an almost mystic understanding of the equine psyche, and owner Charles Howard, who built his fortune selling Buicks and used his salesman's savvy to help turn Seabiscuit into the most popular sports figure, two- or four-legged, of his time. The challenge in adapting this best seller to the screen is that there's too much good stuff; you could build a whole movie around any one of these guys.

Writer-director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville") homes in on the wounds that these three outcasts shared, and finds a tale of salvation: how each, in his way, was healed and made whole by this extraordinary horse. His "Seabiscuit" has unusual ambition in this summer season, for he also attempts to link their struggle to that of a nation mired in the Great Depression. It's nice to see a filmmaker take the time to root his story in a historical context, but sometimes Ross gets a little carried away with his metaphors. Yes, Seabiscuit, like recent Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, was a populist hero, but to suggest that he was the equivalent of FDR's New Deal may be gilding the lily.

It's almost 50 minutes before the title character even makes an appearance. The movie has to cover the rise of Howard (Jeff Bridges) and the death of his son; take Pollard (Tobey Maguire) through his school of hard knocks as a failed prizefighter and half-blind orphan, and set up Smith (Chris Cooper) as a solitary horse savior--a somewhat more humanistic and aphorism-prone figure than the gruff, inscrutable trainer Hillenbrand described. Their stories are garnished with PBS-style documentary interludes (narrated by the too-familiar voice of historian David McCullough) filling us in on the rise of the automotive assembly line and Depression-era soup lines. Though handsomely elegiac, this long prelude feels as generalized as a picture postcard.

The movie achieves traction when Seabiscuit actually hits the track and the three men come together as a team. All the actors are well cast, perfectly at ease in their 1930s skins. Maguire achieves a remarkable physical transformation: with his wavy red hair, rangy body and hollowed eyes, he's shape-shifted into a figure who wouldn't be out of place in a Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl photograph. Even Gary Stevens, the real jockey, proves a natural as Pollard's colleague George Woolf, who had to step in and ride Seabiscuit at a crucial moment. Ross's one total invention is the hyper radio announcer "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin (Bill Macy), a kind of comic Greek chorus. He liberates Ross's sense of humor, which has always been his strong suit. I wish he'd let some of that quirkiness into the rest of the movie: "Seabiscuit" too often unfolds in the reverent tones of a Biblical epic, every point underlined, every emotion goosed by Randy Newman's predictably plangent Americana score.

What's missing is the funk of the racetrack, the stench of the locker rooms, the wonderfully specific details of Hillenbrand's book. A viewer unfamiliar with racing would come away unaware that horses are handicapped with weights; one of the amazing things about Seabiscuit's victories is how big a load he had to overcome. It's oddly unmentioned. It's also curious that Ross doesn't show us the Seabiscuit hats and wallets and parlor games; here was sports merchandising in its early stages. I suspect that a lot was left on the cutting-room floor: Seabiscuit's transformation from obscure nag to national sensation is strangely abrupt.

"Seabiscuit" may be too airbrushed for its own good, but in the end nothing can stop this story from putting a lump in your throat. Every step of the way, the odds were stacked against the temperamental, undersize colt, just as they were against its oversize, injury-prone rider. Even if you know the outcome, the races have stomach-tightening suspense and the victories stir up a sweet surge of elation. You can say about Ross's epic what you can say about the horse it celebrates: it comes through in the stretch.