Horse Play

Track Star: Tobey Maguire plays the jockey Red Pollard in Seabiscuit.Photo: Francois Duhamel

A great racehorse is carrying much more than the weight of his jockey, Johnny “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), in Seabiscuit; he’s shouldering the hopes and dreams of Depression-era America, he’s sprinting for the little guy, he’s restoring a state of spiritual grace to his trainer, his owner, his rider. This real-life, knobby-legged Pegasus, the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, is tailor-made for writer-director Gary Ross, who hits every scene for maximum choke-up appeal. We’re served up the popular mythology of Seabiscuit’s heyday—the gap between rich and poor, between East Coast Establishment fat cats and West Coast wayfarers. He intersperses Ken Burns–ish documentary interludes, with historian David McCullough proclaiming such gems as this one about the invention of the assembly line: “It was the beginning and the end of imagination, all at the same time.”

Much the same could be said of this movie, which introduces a wonderfully rich subject and then smothers it in meaningfulness. The story it tells of a magnificent misfit horse running its heart out for the cheering multitudes is truly inspiring and, as inspirational allegories go, more factual than most. But Ross is the kind of filmmaker who has to turn every crisis into an affirmation, even if what’s being affirmed is dubious at best. Watching this movie, you get the feeling that the Depression existed so that Seabiscuit could be memorialized.

The three broken men whom Seabiscuit restores to life are owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a millionaire West Coast Buick magnate whose young son was killed in a driving accident; trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a plainspoken, aging wrangler; and Pollard, who was left by his family to fend for himself at an early age. Seabiscuit, in turn, is restored by them: He may have been sired by the son of the great Man O’War, but he’s unexceptional-looking and smaller than most racehorses. Together, they bring out the best in one another.

“Watching this movie, you get the feeling that the Depression existed so that Seabiscuit could be memorialized.”

All this redemption is more bearable than it has any right to be, because the actors don’t settle for sentimentality. Sullen and wiry, Maguire is perhaps too closed off in the role, but he gives us a man whose bruises and fractures are the outward emblems of a deeper hurt. Cooper doesn’t overdo the horse-whisperer stuff; his performance is almost as ornery and lived-in as his orchid thief in Adaptation. Bridges displays his peerless, unforced naturalism. Oddly, only Seabiscuit himself fails to come across vividly. (Ten different colts were used.) Although the various races are effectively staged, we are not given much to look at off-track. This may be intentional: Ross, who likes to Think Big, doesn’t want his opus misconstrued as a horse bio. But he needn’t have gone the Mr. Ed route in order to bring out more of Seabiscuit’s character. Compared with the poetic beauty of films like The Black Stallion or even National Velvet, Seabiscuit is prosaic.

Because everything in this movie is keyed to spiritual uplift, it downplays some of the story’s harsher realities. For example, it’s certainly true that Seabiscuit galvanized America. The movie’s centerpiece—his upset victory against War Admiral in 1938—is often cited as the greatest horse race in history. But the re-legalization of wagering, as Hillenbrand pointed out, had a lot to do with Seabiscuit’s celebrity, too. (Her book is a lot more evocative and tough-minded than the movie.) Charles Howard was a relentless promoter, but when he tells the cheering throngs that Seabiscuit is “the future,” he’s speaking as an oracle. Every time we hear about the future in this movie, which is often, Randy Newman’s score swells.

Seabiscuit made a lot of rich people richer, and the world of racing he inhabited was—and still is—a multi-millionaire’s playground. Surely conspicuous wealth had a lot to do with the appeal of this world for the film’s beloved little people. Ross does not linger on the irony that Tom always refers to Charles as Mr. Howard while the reverse is not the case. And he gives the black stable hand hardly anything to say. Meanwhile, we hear David McCullough intoning about shattered men finding their voices. Ross scripted the presidential comedy Dave and wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, but he may have inadvertently made the first bona fide Dubya-era movie: It exalts the haves while paying lip service to the have-nots.

The Magdalene Laundries, run by the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland until they were closed in 1996, were de facto jails for “fallen” women. In writer-director Peter Mullan’s inexorably grim The Magdalene Sisters, set on the outskirts of Dublin in the sixties, we appear to be watching a new species of prison movie. Among those featured are Bernadette (Nora-Jane Noone), an orphan who has been interned for nothing more serious than flirtiness; Rose (Dorothy Duffy), an unmarried mother whose wrenching separation from her infant son is the film’s emotional high point; and Margaret (Anne-Marie Duff), who is packed off to the laundry by her family after being raped by a cousin. Presiding over the girls is Sister Bridget (Geraldine McEwan), who makes Louise Fletcher’s head nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seem almost human. Mullan’s rage at religious hypocrisy sometimes gets the better of him—he admits almost no furtive flashes of cheer into his chamber of horrors—but his righteousness has a factual base: Many of the incidents depicted were derived from an extensively researched British TV documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate. When it comes time for some of the girls to flee, the result is one of the most emotionally satisfying of all prison breaks.

Completed more than two years ago, its distribution repeatedly delayed by world-shaking events from 9/11 to the Iraq war, Gregor Jordan’s Buffalo Soldiers arrives with a lot of hype and little to show for it. Joaquin Phoenix stars as an Army soldier stationed in West Germany at the end of the Cold War; his double-dealings, which include black marketeering and cooking heroin, are the centerpiece of a would-be M*A*S*H-like comedy about what soldiers will do to keep from going crazy. But this is low-grade satire. The shocks to the system in Buffalo Soldiers are nothing more than cheap thrills.

Horse Play