All That You Can Be

Once Upon a Time in America

Seabiscuitcould 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, Seabiscuitis 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, Seabiscuitis 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

Details

Seabiscuit
Written and directed by Gary Ross, from the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Universal
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
Miramax
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

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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, Seabiscuitis 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, Seabiscuitis 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.)

Seabiscuitis 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 Soldiersis 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 Goand 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).

Directed by Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan from Robert O'Connor's 1993 novel, Buffalo Soldiersis a movie of richly saturated colors, tastefully deployed period music, and choreographed set pieces. In the most elaborate, a smacked-out tank crew on maneuvers rolls through the local Oktoberfest, crushing an orange VW bug emblazoned with the anarchist "A." Confounding an army convoy on an autobahn exit ramp, they inadvertently blow up a gas station and proceed through the woods to rejoin their company. The perps are blissfully ignorant, but their escapade enables Elwood to make off with two truckloads of arms.

Elwood is on the verge of his greatest score when a new top sergeant, given the heroic name of Robert Lee and played with a grim death grip by Scott Glenn, arrives to tear his playhouse down. Complicating matters, this hardass has a nubile daughter (Anna Paquin, more adult here than in X2but no less the inadvertent femme fatale). Elwood's strategy of vengeful humping further inflames Lee's program of vengeful hump-busting. As the body count mounts and schemes are folded within schemes, Elwood sinks deeper in shit and Buffalo Soldiersloses its percolating groove somewhat short of the faux apocalyptic closer.

Understandably, Buffalo Soldiers—which premiered at the 2001 Toronto Film Festival two days before September 11—has spent nearly two years on the Miramax shelf. Now perhaps, with another U.S. occupation rapidly souring, its time has come. Watching a tele-babbling Bush, one stoned GI asks, "Where is the Berlin Wall?" In its post-Vietnam cynicism, Buffalo Soldiersfeels almost avant-garde.


Made by Spanish television, the documentary Balseros(Cuban Rafters) opens in Cuba during the summer of 1994 when ongoing shortages and a failed attempt to hijack a ferry to Florida triggered spontaneous street disturbances and prompted thousands of Cubans to attempt to paddle to Miami.

With news-breaking immediacy, the filmmakers show would-be balseros dismantling their houses to build rafts. These flimsy vessels receive send-offs worthy of rockets to Mars and, per some remarkable footage of empty rafts on the open sea, seem far more dangerous. After some weeks, Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept the balseros and warehouse them at Guantánamo with a lottery to determine eventual émigrés. Thus, families are divided and reunited and refugees dispersed throughout the U.S. The filmmakers track seven lucky winners while monitoring their left-behinds—taped, in a form of instant feedback, watching videos of their relatives in Guantánamo and Miami or, in split screen, talking to them on the phone.

The extraordinary sense of recording stories as they unfold is maintained even in Balseros's second half, when the filmmakers return five years later to document the broken relationships and degrees of adaptation. Among other things, the movie offers a fascinating perspective on the U.S.—a paradise at once cold and abundant where, for all the emphasis on family values, the individual reigns supreme. A poignant soundtrack by the exiled singer known only as Lucrecia provides each protagonist with a personal theme. Becalmed or bobbing along, they remain balseros—but then, as this engrossing documentary suggests, so are we all.


Related Story:
"Oceans Apart: Carles Bosch Chronicles a Cuban Exodus" by Laura Sinagra

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