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On the commentary for Ed Wood the screenwriters talked about the decision to focus on one period of Wood's life - his relationship with Bela Lugosi. It would have been too unwieldy to tell his entire life story. Seabiscuit is a movie which attempts to do just that, and not just for one man but for three... and more.

The first forty minutes of the film is pure backstory - the period, the jockey, the owner and the trainer are all painstakingly introduced and their history and motivation laid out for us. Just when the story is ready to begin, we get another five minutes of backstory... for the horse!

The character backstories and the setting deserved to be more effectively revealed than via heavy handed use of narration or showing us in quick succession every major moment.

The importance of the horse to the people didn't require extras to nod and mutter "Yeah!" every time Jeff Bridges made a remark about how everyone deserves a second chance.

Chris Cooper's decision to pair Tobey Maguire with Seabiscuit didn't require repeated back and forth shots showing the horse taking on his handlers and the jockey taking on his bullies.

And we really didn't need Tobey Maguire to tell us in an end-of-film narration that "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."

The result is a self conscious, predictable and at times pretentious picture.

Of course, some of the predictability is forced on us because the story is based on fact. I'll assume that the jockey falling before the big race actually happened. There is one twist of sorts in that a relief rider is enlisted to win the contest against War Admiral, although we still get the "getting back up in the saddle" cliche in a 20 minute epilogue.

That moment presents a challenge for the screenwriter... how do you make Tobey Maguire into a hero when he's lying on his back in the hospital? By showing many scenes of the jockey briefing to his understudy, and none of the trainer. That in itself is an acceptable solution, but again the script makes a mistake. At the end of this sequence Maguire urges his relief to "close the door" (highlighting the secretiveness and importance of what he's about to reveal) and instructs him to slow the horse down at a critical junction of the race, contrary to the trainer's strategy. But any tension and jockey/trainer conflict that might have led to is dissipated only minutes later when the trainer tells him exactly the same thing. Why make a big deal of this instruction when it was always an open strategy?

So Seabiscuit misfires for me. That's not to say that the production values aren't good, the acting of high standard, the racing scenes dynamic and the movie made with love and respect.

Final thought... I wonder if John Cage in Ally McBeal was named after Seabiscuit. The horse is referred to as "The Biscuit" several times in the film, and both are small, eccentric but powerful performers.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 16, 2005 2:31 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Ed Wood.

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