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Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003)


    During a photo montage at the opening of Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit the narrator describes the coming of the assembly line as “the beginning and the end of imagination at the same time.” This is the same sort of vague and counterproductive romanticism that powered Ross’ technically admirable, consistently amusing, but ultimately hokey, Pleasantville. In that film, which had its entire premise built upon the supposition that the audience did know what was in store for the inhabitants of its imaginary sitcom world, Ross ended with the whimsical lines “What happens next?” / “I don’t know!” It seems Ross wants to give his audiences a sense of wonder in his films, so he tends to reduce his portrayal of history as something more uncomplicated and magical than reality. As he’s trying to force the audience into a position where they will feel reverent awe, he’s smugly exerting his faux superiority over history by simplifying it, and duping them by using documentary techniques. Obviously many respond to every Norman Rockwell-inspired composition the director dishes out here, but to me it feels like a skeptic’s attempt at sincerity, since every attempt to convey true nostalgia results in the cornball, as if only things that are good and honest are worth remembering. In Seabiscuit he shows endless shots of characters wistfully remembering their pasts and savoring the present (“That’s the poetry right there, Agnes,” says one man as he’s watching his son ride a horse), just in case we somehow don’t realize that we’re supposed to be seeing the horse’s story as part of our collective conscience.


    As handsomely mounted as it is (was the Depression-era that handsome?), Seabiscuit is almost unbearable for its first forty-five minutes. Before Ross trots out the titular horse and the genuinely interesting race sequences begin to fill the run time, he spends most of his time establishing the trio of men that serve as the story’s protagonists and fawning over every boyhood antique in sight. A millionaire, seemingly unaffected by the depression (though there’s a lame attempt to relate the car crash with the stock market crash) provides the primary emotional arc in the film. There’s something almost disingenuous in telling the story of the nation’s recovery from the depression through him, but there’s also something a bit off about imbuing this sort of reverence to the memory of a sporting event. Ross attempts to turn the Nike commercial into an art form, and that attempt peaks when Moby inexplicably appears on the soundtrack. If a film was made at this pitch about the Superbowl, it would be laughable. What is it about setting a film in the past that makes filmmakers think they have carte blanche to be lazy sentimentalists? Occasionally, such as when William H. Macy is on screen, or during most of the second act, Seabiscuit overcomes such concerns, but basically there’s no escaping the fact while watching it that we’re essentially watching the story of an icon founded out of PR hype.




Jeremy Heilman