All That You Can Be

Once Upon a Time in America

 Seabiscuit could easily have been pitched as the equine Rocky—and would surely have made a splendid experimental production with Sylvester Stallone in the title role. But as adapted by Gary Ross from Laura Hillenbrand's wildly popular biography, the ungainly thoroughbred that captivated America in the late '30s is less a character, or even a corporeal creature, than a star-spangled symbol.

Ross, who wrote speeches for candidates Dukakis and Clinton before scripting the Capraesque political comedy Dave (1993) and directing the Clintonian allegory Pleasantville (1998), treats the true tale of Seabiscuit's triumph over handicap and adversity as the stuff of political myth. More mystical than mysterious, Seabiscuit is a proudly cornball sentimental epic—a reverential paean to a vanished America that's steeped in inspirational uplift and played for world-historical pathos.

Remarkable in its trajectory and bizarre in its details, the story scarcely needs such strenuous contextualization. The movie, however, is concerned that every one of its viewers—even Seabiscuit himself—will get the significance. Daringly contemplative, if unburdened by analysis, Seabiscuit is narrated by PBS historian David McCullough, who performed a similar role for Ken Burns's The Civil War. (Indeed, the distant trumpets of Randy Newman's score might have burdened even Burns to a fanfare-thee-well.) The use of period photographs also nods to Burns, although, as befits a DreamWorks co-production, Seabiscuit's opening evocation of a sun-dappled 1910 America is an exercise in lugubrious Spielbergism.

Kingdom for a horse: Maguire astride star-spangled symbol in Seabiscuit
photo: François Duhamel
Kingdom for a horse: Maguire astride star-spangled symbol in Seabiscuit


Written and directed by Gary Ross, from the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Opens July 25

Buffalo Soldiers
Directed by Gregor Jordan
Written by Jordan and Eric Axel Weiss & Nora MacCoby, from the novel by Robert O'Connor
Opens July 25, at AMC Empire and Angelika

Balseros (Cuban Rafters)
Directed by Carles Bosch and Josep M. Domènech
Seventh Art/HBO/Cinemax Documentary
July 23 through August 5, at Film Forum

The horse Seabiscuit was "produced" by three humans—affable owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), taciturn trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and tormented jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire)—and the movie unfolds in three acts. The first, keyed to the Great Depression, shows each man suffering a terrible loss. Self-made industrialist Howard loses his son; cowboy Smith is cast adrift by the closed frontier; and Red is deserted by his newly destitute parents. In her book, Hillenbrand describes the men's first encounters with the stunted, stubby, bad-tempered Seabiscuit in terms best rendered by animated cartoon: Smith remembers making eye contact with the horse and "darned if the little rascal didn't nod back at me."

In the movie, Seabiscuit offers his hard luck human brothers a new deal. As explained by Howard, with Bridges seemingly directed for maximum FDR jauntiness, "sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance." (Maguire's newly revealed cheekbones may be taken as living proof.) Ross juxtaposes Seabiscuit's early success with photographs of American workers, re-dignified in their labor by Roosevelt's WPA. This national recovery sets the stage for Seabiscuit's role as the embodiment of democracy. Having won an astonishing seven consecutive high stakes races, the horse is promoted by Howard to go one-on-one with Triple Crown winner War Admiral.

The challenge is disdained. The haughty War Admiral, as his snobbish owner sniffs, is "a superior horse with superior breeding." Undeterred, Howard launches a whistle-stop campaign to force the issue. Once the race is arranged, he compels the War Admiral trust to open up their track to cheap admissions: "You shouldn't have to be rich to enjoy something like this." Rather than the race, Ross provides a montage in which everyone in America is shown following the action on the radio—which was pretty much the case.

Such cerebral populism aside, there's some moderately exciting action here—although Ross's strategy of camera placement will never be confused with Martin Scorsese's in Raging Bull. But then, as the miraculous double comeback of the movie's final act makes clear, Seabiscuit is fundamentally a drama of faith. (And isn't horse racing itself about the winning long-shot, the financial killing, the ultimate, irrational hope?) For all the fastidious periodizing, Seabiscuit is a movie of its moment—a tale of personal rehabilitation. Charles remains traumatized by his son's death; Tom is near autistic in his resistance to human contact; Red has ongoing abandonment issues. All are cured through exposure to the once abused and no longer "bitter" Seabiscuit. (Even the book, as recently recounted in The New Yorker, represents Hillenbrand's decade-long struggle to overcome chronic fatigue syndrome.)

Seabiscuit is all about redemption. If the movie beats the odds to become a summer blockbuster, it will similarly be credited with having restored American confidence and rescued Hollywood from the box-office doldrums of a mediocre, sequel-clogged season.

A dark service comedy, Buffalo Soldiers is set on a U.S. military base in Stuttgart even as the wall is tumbling in Berlin. The tone of rampant de- (as well as a-) moralization is immediately established by an impromptu indoor touch football game during which one drug-addled GI trips, cracks his skull against a desk corner, and, ignored by his comrades, dies.

This jaunty mish-M*A*S*H has a seductive, nonchalant glitter and an unshakably mocking attitude. Alternately evoking the cream of recent caper films, Doug Liman's Go and David O. Russell's more eccentric (and sentimental) Three Kings, the movie's smirk is so fixed it precludes laughter. Wryly self-contained, Joaquin Phoenix plays chief supply clerk and master of the black market Ray Elwood—a cool, smack-dealing equivalent of Catch-22's Milo Minderbinder or Phil Silver's Sergeant Bilko. Elwood is a sympathetic rogue mainly because he's so much more self-aware than anyone else on the base. Like Bilko, he's blessed with a clueless colonel (Ed Harris); unlike Bilko, he's doing double duty servicing the colonel's wife (Elizabeth McGovern).

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