Seabiscuit (8)

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley


 If there’s one dictum in movie making that is proven time and again in its absence it’s Woody Allen’s that movies should not exceed 90 minutes.  Seabiscuit is just the latest of a long list of well-intentioned films that just take themselves so seriously that they can’t leave a lot of the stuff they shoot on the cutting room floor.

 This really isn’t just the story of a horse.  It’s the story of three men, the horse’s owner, car dealer Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), its trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire).  As suggested in Alice in Wonderland, the film starts at the very beginning and continues on until the end.  It actually starts with Howard working on Henry Ford’s assembly line!  I mean, that’s about as far back as you can go.  We’re introduced to Red Pollard as a child.  Only Smith is introduced as a contemporary, and he’s probably the most interesting character.  He’s the guy who, through some profound intuition, recognized that Seabiscuit had something special even after he had raced without much success for several years, bought him for Howard for $7,500, and trained him into the champion he became.  But the movie treats Smith almost as an afterthought, behind Howard and Pollard.  Even though his character gets short shrift, at this point Cooper should be a contender for Best Supporting Actor.

 But even though it’s the life story of three men, as well as the horse, there’s really no logical reason why this story should take more than 90 minutes to tell.  The movie seems almost as long as Seabiscuit’s entire career, finally clocking in at 2 hours nine minutes, way, way over the track record.

 The cinematography by John Schwartzman is exceptional, indeed a reason by itself to see the film.  The acting’s pretty good, although Howard’s second wife, Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), beautiful as she is, isn’t up to the quality of the rest of the cast.  But the worst part of the entire movie is “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin (William H. Macy), a fictional sportscaster so over the top he seriously damages the movie.  It’s a shame that Writer-Director Gary Ross (who also appears as the Pimlico Track Announcer) had so little faith in just telling the story that he had to add such a ridiculous character.  McGlaughlin is so irritating that he detracts from, and diminishes, Seabiscuit’s amazing story.  To be factual, former UCLA basketball player, and Olympic Gold Medal Winner (1936), Sam Balter had the first ever (and only one at the time, at least of which I am aware) coast-to-coast radio commentary show which commenced on the Mutual Network in 1938, the year of the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race and the year Seabiscuit was Horse of the Year, and he was the exact opposite of “Tick Tock,” a low-key guy who hardly ever raised his voice.  “Tick-Tock” is just a figment of Ross’s imagination, and is a huge mistake.  Rather than being funny, which I guess was what Ross was aiming for, Tick Tock is simply ludicrous.

 Another problem I have with this film is one that troubles all sports films.  I’ve played most of the sports all my life.  Whenever I see a sports movie, the sounds are so over emphasized that they become cartoons.  In boxing movies the noise accompanying a slight left jab is akin to the explosion of a hand grenade.  Nobody could survive one punch that sounds like this, much less 15 rounds of them.  Basketball movies sound far more violent than games really are.  In football movies (and the videos brought to us by NFL Films and the like) the sounds accompanying each play would require 22,000 men to complete a game because anyone hit as hard as the sounds indicate wouldn’t last more than one play.  Don’t get me wrong, these guys hit hard, but not as hard as the sounds make you believe.  The microphone expands the noise so that it transcends from what’s ordinarily background to where it becomes the most compelling part of the sport, and that’s just basic misrepresentation.

 Even though the racing scenes, choreographed by jockey Chris McCarron, are compelling and very well done, I wondered if the sounds in Seabiscuit exaggerate the ferocity of the race.  I know that there’s more that goes on in a horse race between the jockeys than we can see. So I asked Jorge Estrada, who was a world-class jockey at Santa Anita and the other major tracks. Estrada’s take on the movie is instructive, coming as it does from the inside.  As far as the noises are concerned, he confirms my suspicion.  “I won two races one day at Santa Anita before 85,000 people; the grandstand was packed, the infield was packed.  I didn’t hear any noise at all during the races, even from the public address announcer calling the race.  As far as the noise of the race itself, you don’t hear much of anything.  You don’t hear the horses hooves hit the ground.  You don’t hear the cavalry stampede, unless you’re in front and fading.  Then you might hear the pack coming up on you.  The horses’ hooves are throwing dirt up in your face that’s hitting you at around 50 miles an hour.  Believe me, you don’t hear much of anything.”

 Estrada said jockeys never take instruction from owners or trainers.  He said Willie Shoemaker told him “good jockeys don’t need it and bad jockeys won’t follow it.” He said, “I won over 1,000 races.  Somebody who’s never even ridden in one race is going to tell me how to ride a race?  I would find that offensive.”  So much for trainer Smith telling jockey George Woolf (played by real life jockey Gary Stevens, looking like he’d been acting all his life), the greatest jockey of his era, how to ride Seabiscuit in the legendary match race against War Admiral (in real life it was Pollard who gave Woolf the tip on how to ride the race).  In addition, Estrada said that trainers not only would never talk to a jockey in the jock room, they are not allowed in the jock room.  The only way you can get in is if you’re a jockey.  “That’s our inner sanctum, the place where we can get away from those jerks.”

 There’s a scene where Red on Seabiscuit passes Woolf on the backstretch in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap.  Woolf says to Red, “OK, Johnny, have a good ride,” as Seabiscuit passes Woolf's horse.  “Never in a million years would one jockey in a race tell another jockey to go beat him, especially in one of the biggest races in the world,” says Estrada, “and especially not Woolf, who had a reputation for being arrogant, and in that race it’s even less likely since Woolf had been replaced as jockey of the horse Red was riding.”

 Estrada confirmed that the fight between jockeys during the race that we see in the first part of the film was commonplace before film.  Now they film you from so many angles that it’s not possible to take swings at other jockeys without being caught.  But in the days of Seabiscuit there was no film and it happened a lot.  Estrada also said that jockeys don’t talk to their horses like Red and Woolf talked to Seabiscuit.  He said it’s so unprofessional that if they did they’d get unmerciful razzing from the other jockeys. 

 Technical complaints aside, this is, after all, a movie and is entitled to literary license. Most people will probably enjoy it.  And the films that have been released so far this year make this an Oscar contender.  But I thought it was too long and that the McGlaughlin character and Banks’ acting devitalized the final result.  On the plus side, it’s a good story well told, most of the actors are good, and the cinematography should win awards.

 July 29, 2003

 The End