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Seabiscuit

Gen-X-Review-SeabiscuitI didn’t want to like Seabiscuit. In my heart I know horses are just big, dumb dogs that eat grass. There’s a sort of sophomoric sentimentality around these animals I just don’t get. “The horse is, like, symbolic,” I hear some 12-year-old girl saying in my head, ending every sentence as though it were a question, “of man’s need to be free?”

 

Ugh.


So I’d begun jotting down clever putdowns even before Seabiscuit had begun. I find in the margins of my notepad: See, Bisquick – not so much a film as a cake mix destined to cause diabetic seizures, ersatz, junk food for the soul. Horses. Feh.


But now I suddenly want a pony of my very own. I want to learn all those old, cheesy horse songs like Wildfire and The Wild Horse. I’m even considering saddling up my ferret Wilbur to see if he’d take to the bit.


I hate to admit it, but Seabiscuit is great. It is so good, in fact, that my wife forbade me from saying anything bad about the film as we left the theatre. “Don’t you dare even open your mouth if you didn’t like that movie,” she said. “I just don’t want to hear it.” I sat glumly in the truck, trying to think of something negative, just to be a booger. But I couldn’t.


Seabiscuit is a classic American movie. It repeats the old myths we’ve learned to forget, the stories that have been banged out of our heads, the vital fables that make this country great. Bringing together elements of the Western, the sports film and the epic romance, it is strangely a thing unto itself, a remarkably big film about remarkably big ideals.


Ostensibly about a little horse named Seabiscuit, the film is actually a complex retelling of our primal mythology. The horse does indeed symbolize freedom, but it also signifies an anxiety over industrialization; expresses misgivings about eugenics and class; and (most importantly) speaks to our country’s need to believe in the power of the individual, especially when that individual stands in for the collective and national.


In a real sense our country began in the West, in the desire to push the horizon as far as it could go. The West has always been our new Eden, and men like Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) rebuilt themselves in the open canvas of the desert. In the beginning of the movie Howard leaves a failed career in an Eastern factory to make his fortune by re-imagining the Stanley Steamer in a new form and makes oodles selling his racy Buicks.


Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is a man of the plains – a cowboy – facing his own extinction. The automobile has made the continent small and barbed-wire fences divide up the landscape as easterners push farther toward the Pacific. Smith is the last of a breed of men, a sort of horse whisperer who speaks the secret language of the desert.


When the film opens, Red Pollard (later played by Tobey Maguire) is a young boy living with his affluent bourgeois parents. The country’s prosperity – especially its success in the West – trickled down to all Americans in the 1920s, and the Pollard family enjoys a life of luxury unimagined by earlier middle-class families. Pollard’s father even decides to buy the boy a horse.


These are particular people living individual lives, but Black Monday spins each of them in their own way, tearing them from families and loved ones, setting them adrift in the world, severing their bonds to place. The stock market crash bears down on them and they survive mostly by trying to forget what was once important to them.


In the years following the collapse, the country sustained itself in mostly survival mode. Unemployment climbed to over 20 percent and many Americans migrated to the West Coast in a sort of collective amnesia. What emerged from that time, however, is a country whose belief in itself, in its own goodness, seemed unflappable.


The three men’s lives converge on Seabiscuit in the late 1930s, toward the end of the depression. Like them, he has been beaten and abused and all but forgotten. The horse has been forced to lose, desire trampled out of him until he can express only stupid anger. On little more than a whim Howard hires Smith to find him a racehorse and the cowboy buys the animal, though he appears limp and dejected. Unable to find any reasonably minded jockey to ride the creature, Smith eventually discovers Pollard, who has drifted in and out of racing since his parents left him on their way to the West.


The horse becomes a national symbol as they begin winning races. If the Westward migration represents America’s ability to re-imagine itself, the years following the depression show the country’s redemptive capability. What was broken could be redeemed and made whole once again. The mean days of the 1930s only indicated toughness in the nation’s spirit. Seabiscuit is an articulation of that dream, that beautiful myth.

 

One drawback to writing a positive review of a film like Seabiscuit is that you end up endorsing its naïve platitudes to some extent. So it’s with a heavy heart that I find in my notes such lines as “we can afford to lose anything but our dreams” and “what we learn from races isn’t necessarily what it takes to win, but what it takes to try.” I pass these along to you in the spirit of Christmas to do with what you will. In my defense I will say that it is a film that drives even hardened cynics to applause.


There is a lot riding on this little horse, and this film won’t let you down. Even if you think horse is a four-letter word.

 

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