Sometimes catastrophe can bring good to a person. The people who live in during the time that "Seabiscuit," takes place suffer through the Great Depression, a horrible time in early American history that changed the lives of many forever, especially for those who found themselves out of the job and in the bread lines.
The main character is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a skilled craftsman who begins as a bicycle salesman but soon finds a different calling when he is asked to repair a Stanley Steamer after seeing no business repairing bikes. With great pride, Charles takes the project to heart and modifies the car to perfection. Before long, Charles is taking in millions and buys a farm, and turning its stables into a working garage. The scene that shows a pack of horses being led out while cars are brought in is important to theme and overall impact of the story.
The story takes a tragic turn and Charles finds interest in horses and horse racing. The Depression and prohibition sent thrill-seekers south of the border to discover new forms of entertainment and the new concept of quick money through gambling. A regular to the tracks, Charles soon discovers Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), a young kid who was willing to do anything for money during the hard times. An unsuccessful boxer and retired stable cleaner, Pollard quickly became good at being a jockey despite his unusually large body frame. But Charles is a born leader who looks inside for talent, a trait few must have possessed in such impatient times. He decides Pollard will be his jockey even though he has little professional experience. And on top of that, he still doesn't have a horse. So Charles eventually meets Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a poor man who lives in the woods with his horses. His specialty is rehabilitating the horses who would otherwise have been shot. Tom puts his faith in a lazy horse named Seabiscuit, and together they are recruited by Charles to form a winning horse racing team.
Tom Smith is the most admirable character in the film. Horses are his passion; his friends. He treats them with respect and can turn a horse who would rather sleep in the shade into a fighting winner. This whole process is of course explained in detail through long shots of introductions and development.
Red Pollard, called Red for his bright red hair, is a confident rider and never lets the insults from other jockeys get to him. "That's a small horse," a jockey observes. "It's gonna' look a lot smaller in a second," Red calmly answers. He too has a history that is explored in time before Seabiscuit enters the frame.
Charles is the bankroll behind Seabiscuit, and one of the few rich characters in movies we actually like. Not knowing him but a week, Charles confides all of his confidence in Tom's instinct and never questions his horse picking nor his training methods. The strength of Charles' character is also seen through multiple tragedies and several life-changing events, but they never stop him from living the dream.
The action in the film is tense. The races are executed with pure grace as cinematographer John Schwartzman does a great job at brining us as close as possible to the race. If I had to complain about something, it would be in the improbable dialogue that takes place during some of the races between jockeys. I doubt jockeys could concentrate on the task at hand when engaged in conversation let alone hear the spoken comments over the thundering sound of the racing horses and the constant roaring from the stands.
Once an underdog who was the laughingstock of the racing sport, Seabiscuit begins sweeping the West with virtually no competition. Charles is no longer satisfied with the modest victories out West and decides to challenge War Admiral, the Eastern champion and winner of the Triple Crown. War Admiral is a glorious horse.
Tall and broad, Admiral outshines Seabiscuit in almost every category, from his silky black hide to his skyscraping poise. He is owned by Samuel Riddle (Eddie Jones), a wealthy horse owner who wants nothing to do with Seabiscuit's publicity. But Charles' never-ending persistence draws overwhelming support from racing fans all over the country and Riddle eventually accepts the challenge. His one stipulation is that the race takes place on his turf with his traditional rules, unorthodox to mainstream racing such as the abandoning of starting gates.
The races and ever publicity event leading up to them are narrated by Tick Tock McLaughlin (William H. Macy), a popular radio announcer who uses his own vocal distortions to add campy sound effects to his broadcasting. His high pitched lighting-fast commentary brings a warm nostalgic feel to the movie, as if we were watching an old 1920's documentary. Credit Macy for successfully performing a key role in the movie's backdrop if not the main story.
The climax is obviously the big race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. Director Gary Ross films it perfectly, from the start up until the heart-stopping conclusion. He uses a smart blend of movie footage with actually stock photography of the time, when most families couldn't afford to attend the race and had to crowd around the living room radio to hear the live call.
Seabiscuit symbolized America at a time when people were lost, looking for hope and answers. The answer was that sometimes the underdog can win. Victory is inevitable, even when stacked up against the odds. Seabiscuit doesn't win every race, but he doesn't have to. His charisma and the electricity that explodes from Seabiscuit's team makes him a favorite amongst the fans. It's a good lesson for audiences, even if it comes from a horse.