I am going to preface this review with this excerpt taken from The Nine Alignments of Movies on The Nickel Screen:
They come out every year, the run-of-the-mill, Oscar-hopeful films. Brimming with great actors, these movies deal with whichever depressing issue currently holds the nation’s attention. The director is probably foreign and it’s almost certainly a period piece. Perhaps a young white boy with a mental disability learns to play the piano with the help of his black football teammate despite the fact that they’re both orphans and everyone on the team persecutes them for their friendship. Or maybe there’s a war on, and only the fastest warhorse the world’s ever seen can turn the tide, but how is it supposed to run with a degenerative leg condition, especially when the only one standing up for him is a plucky cavalryman who’s coping with his homosexuality in an oppressive and close-minded society?
My Pick: True Grit. Great actors? Check: Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges. Great director? Check: The Coen Brothers. Heartwarming and semi-tragic tale? Check: the drunkard who cares only about himself learns the value of caring about others. The problem is that there’s just not much to this movie. The acting and dialogue are superb, but the story is unexciting. There’s little emotional attachment, and therefore it’s only somewhat enjoyable, even if it is Gold.
Other Examples: Seabiscuit, The Blind Side, Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, Movies about boxing
To some degree, I understand where this is getting at. Seabiscuit puts a tick in nearly all the boxes of the List of Essential Elements of a Movie, if there ever was such a list. It is ultimately a feel-good tale, but what a feel-good tale this is. It is not only a story about a horse, but it is the story of a horse that really was and that really won those races. Seeing it from this angle I can easily imagine myself watching a biographical film (and I love those), and therein lies the greater appeal of the film. Earlier today (yesterday, if you want to be technical), I reviewed War Horse, in which I discussed the merits and let-downs of the film. Seabiscuit is easily the anti-thesis of War Horse. It is shot in a very practical, very sparse style, with no suggestion that it is looking for a Best Cinematography Award – and that is just as well, because the gritty, sandy, dusty look suits the setting and themes of the film and grounds it solidly in reality. And I felt for feisty Seabiscuit something I didn’t feel for Joey: I wanted him to win. I was rooting for him. When he won I felt a jolt of triumph. Perhaps that is the gamble of the race-course at work: I knew Joey was going to come out of his trials and tribulations alive, but it weren’t sure-wins for Seabiscuit. Or perhaps, and what I believe is the bigger reason, is the more interesting cast of characters surrounding Seabiscuit, from his reckless jockey to his owner whose personal family tragedy is so beautifully underplayed and starkly brought out.
But I wouldn’t have quoted the above extract from Nickel Screen if I didn’t agree with something there. Seabiscuit has all the makings of a great movie, but there was still a little something missing in the emotional department. As with all biographical films I watch I end up wiki-ing the titular character after the viewing. What I found out was that Seabiscuit was such a hit not only because he was America’s favourite underdog, but because of the context in which he accomplished all these breakthroughs. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:
A small horse, Seabiscuit had an inauspicious start to his racing career, but became an unlikely champion and a symbol of hope to many Americans during the Great Depression.
I just felt that the film somehow didn’t bring that point across powerfully enough, and there was room for the message to be conveyed with greater emotional resonance. So that perhaps, we could feel a little more when Red Pollard ends off with these lines:
“You know, everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too.”
Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Rating on IMDb: 7.3
Viewing history: Seen 1x. On TV.