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Seabiscuit - Preview & US reaction

Preview by: Jack Foley

ALMOST every year, somewhere amid the blockbuster excess, comes a movie of genuine worth - something that really gives audiences to think about, other than mindless mayhem.

This year's entry is Seabiscuit, which boasts a stellar cast and a feelgood story, which is based on real events.

But first, the cast. It stars Tobey (Spider-Man) Maguire, as hard-luck jockey, Red Pollard, who overcame two career, and life-threatening spills, to finally achieve glory atop the 'Biscuit, a Depression-era horse which captured the hearts of a nation.

The horse's owner (Jeff Bridges) and trainer (Oscar-winner, Chris Cooper) were along for the ride. William H Macy also co-stars.

The film is written and directed by Gary Ross, and is based on the novel by Laura Hillenbrand.

Hillenbrand came across some material about the owner and the trainer of a Depression-era racehorse, named Seabiscuit, in 1996, when working on an unrelated subject.

Hillenbrand got on her first horse at the age of five, and had brought together her love of horses and history by writing for Equus and a variety of other publications.

She first read about Seabiscuit as a child and encountered him again and again in her work, as a fan and chronicler of horseracing.

While she knew the story of the knobby-kneed horse and his strange and inspiring career, she knew little about the people around him - the owner, the trainer and the jockey. She had little idea that her discovery that day would lead to a publishing phenomenon.

Four years later, Hillenbrand submitted the book for publication.

From the beginning, her expectations were modest. "I was thinking," remembers Hillenbrand, "'If I can sell 5,000 copies out of the trunk of my car, I'll be happy.' I just wanted to tell the story."

However, the response to the book from critics and the public was overwhelming.

Named one of the best books of the year by more than 20 publications - including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, People, USA Today, and The Economist -Seabiscuit was also honored as the BookSense Nonfiction Book of the Year and the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

The hardcover edition remained on The New York Times Best-Seller List for 30 weeks; the paperback edition debuted on the list the week of April 14, 2002, and hasn't left since (remaining there for more than 60 weeks).

In addition to being one of Hollywood's most gifted storytellers, director and screenwriter Gary Ross is also a long-time fan of horseracing. Ross' love for racing started early on.

He and his wife, executive producer Allison Thomas, had spent a fair amount of time at the track before they came across an article about three men and an unlikely racehorse named Seabiscuit, entitled 'Four Good Legs Between Us' in a little-known publication called American Heritage. The author was Laura Hillenbrand.

A heavy bidding war for the film rights to the proposed book ensued and then Ross decided to make a call to Hillenbrand.

"I talked to her about horseracing," recalls Ross, who spent two hours on the phone with the author, "and specifically about Secretariat's Belmont, which to me is still the most amazing athletic achievement ever."

Hillenbrand comments: "Gary recognized, as I do, that this is a story about people more than it is a 'horse story.'

"When I saw the movie, it was lyrical and beautiful and just wonderful-I was so happy with the way it came out. I had a lot of confidence in Gary Ross right from the start, from the first conversation I had with him, that we saw the story the same way.

"I was so pleased with the way he wove the story of these people together and created a much larger story. This movie is a very intricate patchwork, and I am very pleased."

The movie opened in America to almost universal acclaim, and is scheduled for a UK release on November 4.



US reaction

The reaction to the film Seabiscuit is the type usually reserved for the best films of the year - so talk of Oscar nominations may not be that premature (even if the arrival of the movie may be).

Rolling Stone led the way, by noting that 'Ross restores the good name of crowd-pleasing', while E! Online awarded it an A- and described it as 'one of the best sports films of the past 10 years'.

Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, referred to it as 'a rare pedigreed entrant in a summer of mules'.

And Ebert and Roeper wrote that 'if you've been waiting all summer for a story that doesn’t rely on explosions, car chases and computer-generated effects, here it is'., meanwhile, awarded it four and a half out of five, and wrote that 'it may look like a long shot, but this one's a real winner'.

There were those who found the plot a little predictable and sentimental, such as the New York Times, which opined that 'Seabiscuit grew out of a restless, populist strain in American culture. Seabiscuit, decorous to a fault, pays tribute to that spirit without partaking of it'.

And wrote that 'Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit is for the ages. Ross' version is designed to last only until the next Oscar season rolls around'.

Newsday, meanwhile, felt that 'despite the mugging from Macy and sparks of genuine turmoil generated by the ever-surprising Maguire, there isn't a spontaneous moment in the whole picture'.

And Slant Magazine wrote that '… it's difficult to get past the desperate historical contextualization, the queasy Randy Newman score and a corny narrative that plays out like a high school history report drunk on one too many metaphors'.

But, in the main, the word was good, with the Los Angeles Times noting that 'it is not as exceptional a film as the reality deserves, but with a story this strong and races this expertly re-created, it squeezes out a victory by being as good a movie as it needs to be'.

And the Chicago Tribune wrote that it is 'sleek, beautiful and packed with emotion, not too flashy but full of heart, this is a movie worthy of its unlikely yet glorious subject'.

The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to it as 'corny but effective', and the New York Observer felt that 'if you don’t go away entertained, informed and sated with satisfaction, you need to have your pulse checked to see if you still have one'.

The San Francisco Chronicle described it as 'a faithful, loving piece of work', and CNN felt that 'Seabiscuit is a good movie, but it could have been a great one - it just misses by a nose'.

The Detroit News, meanwhile, seems to sum it up best, as 'the kind of movie that makes you feel better for having watched it, a film of endless hope and energy'.

Hence, that feels like a good way to round-up this overview....


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