(2003) *** 1/2 Pg-13
140 min. distributer. Director: Gary Ross. Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Gary Stevens, Chris McCarron.

For those who lament that Hollywood doesn't make them like they used to, Seabiscuit is just the (racing) ticket. An old-fashioned Hollywood history is a double-edged sword, of course, fudging the facts and casting familiar faces in glove-fit iconic characterizations. If Gary Ross's adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's runaway non-fiction bestseller—about the little racehorse that could—catches you in the wrong mood, you're liable to cluck disapprovingly at the screen. More likely, this handsomely mounted American epic will take you for a ride.

Seabiscuit descended from the legendary Man O'War but languished in obscurity after many wrote off the erratic horse as hopeless. The spunky stallion's ascent coincided with the interest of automobile magnate Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) and horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), who enlisted unlikely jockey "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire) to ride Seabiscuit into the history books. Ross aligns the ups and downs of Seabiscuit with the imaginative new-millennium leaps of inventive businessmen like Henry Ford, the despair of the Depression, and the promise of FDR's new deal. Seabiscuit became a popular distraction, an inspirational touchstone to America's troubled and downtrodden.

Writer-director Ross's true-believer American salesmanship—inspired by Frank Capra and honed in Dave and Pleasantville--suits this story of American entrepreneurship, optimism, and resilience. The stranger-than-fiction story of three men and a little horse is full of dramatic triumphs and reversals, and Ross gets the broad strokes right. Dramatic license is to be expected, and much of the license taken here is justifiable for the purpose of conflating history's sprawl.

In some details, however, Ross's willingness to sell out the true-life drama for presumed greater impact seems pointless or crassly manipulative, like the recasting of Howard's unfortunate son as an only-child tyke. Narration by historian David McCullough craftily sets a credible tone, allowing in some of Hillenbrand's prose and accompanying archival photographs. Some seams show in this 140-minute movie, like the thread of Pollard's family story, which Ross leaves suspiciously dangling (check the cutting room floor). Ross also marginalizes Howard's wife Marcela (and, for that matter, excises Pollard's wife) to focus on his multiple male leads.

The cannily cast-to-type stars—avuncular Bridges, rugged Cooper, and scrappy Maguire—bring their consummate skill to the enterprise. Bridges cannot help but call to mind his his indelible role in this film's superior model, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Cooper fills in the script's blanks by embodying shrewdness while Maguire gets the best scenes, tenderly hanging out with a horse. Real-life jockey Gary Stevens does a bang-up job playing jockey George Woolf, and William H. Macy has a polarizing, over-the-top turn as the made-up radio personality Tick Tock McGlaughlin (I found his comic lift a useful tonal foil).

Jeannine Oppewall's detailed period production design—likewise mostly accurate but also trading lightly on movie dreams—steals the show. John Schwartzman's cinematography and Randy Newman's inspirational music add invaluably to Ross's sentimental throughlines. Ross wisely employs Pollard's well-known love of literature to reflect grand ideals of achievement; Dickinson's lines "We never know how high we are/Till we are called to rise" echo in Howard's assertion that "Out here, the sky is, literally, the limit"). The tried-and-true notion that the underdog's big wins are more deeply felt for each loss that comes before works to quadruple effect here. The film's pivotal bit of dialogue--"You don't throw a life away just because it's banged up a little"--folksily defends all life on planet earth, so the sky may also be the limit at America's box offices.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/26/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Though Seabiscuit is already six years old, you wouldn't know it from Universal's impeccable A/V transfer as the film makes its Blu-ray debut. With grain held to a minimum, the image is three-dimensional, unbothered by digital artifacts, and perfectly natural in contrast, color and black level. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track captures every thunderous hoofbeat in lossless sound. This one's a no-brainer hi-def upgrade from standard-def DVD.

All of the bonus features from the two-disc DVD edition are replicated here, beginning with a feature commentary with director Gary Ross and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh is a master of the commentary interview, and it's great to have him chatting with the gregarious Ross about the history and the film's making.

"Bringing the Legend to Life: The Making of Seabiscuit" (15:06, SD) packs a lot of information into a quarter-hour, including extensive behind-the-scenes footage, clips, and interviews with Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Tobey Maguire, screenwriter-director-producer Gary Ross, Seabiscuit author and technical consultant Laura Hillenbrand, executive producer Allison Thomas, producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, race designer/technical consultant Chris McCarron, DP John Schwartzman, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, Gary Stevens, and film editor William Goldenberg.

In "Anatomy of a Movie Moment" (4:45, SD), Ross talks us through an early sequence in the film, as he scripted it with a shot list in mind.

"Seabiscuit: Racing through History" (14:53, SD) takes a strictly historical perspective, with plenty of archival footage. Participants include Ross, Hillenbrand, narrator/historian David McCullough, Bloodhorse Magazine editor-in-chief Ray Pollick, McCarron, Maguire, and Stevens.

"Photo Finish: Jeff Bridges' On the Set Photographs" (5:21, SD) has Bridges introduce his set snaps, an ongoing tradition.

"The Longshot" (3:17, SD) is a three-minute newsreel-style Buick commercial.

"Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral: The 1938 Match Race" (2:12, SD) is original newsreel footage.

"Winner's Circle: The Heroes Behind the Legend" (20:15 with "Play All" option, SD) profiles eight actors and their characters: Maguire, Bridges, Cooper, Stevens, Elizabeth Banks, Kingston DuCoeur, William H. Macy, and McCullough. Ross, Hillenbrand, and McCarron also chime in.

HBO First Look special "Seabiscuit: The Making of a Legend" (13:02, SD) is a straightforward making-of, with Ross, Bridges, McCullough, Kennedy, Marshall, Hillenbrand, Macy, Maguire, executive producer Robin Bissell, Stevens, and McCarron.

The A&E special "The True Story of Seabiscuit" (45:12, SD), hosted by Macy, gathers clips, archival footage and interviews with Ross, Stevens, Maguire, Bridges, McCarron, Equus Magazine senior editor Emily Kilby, jockey in Seabiscuit's stable Farrell "Wild Horse" Jones, horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, horse trainer Noble Threewitt, Vivian Montoya of the Southern California Thoroughbred Breeders Foundation, Pimlico Race Track judge Howard "Gelo" Hall, Ridgewood Ranch caretaker Tracy Livingston, former Ridgewood ranchhand Bill Nichols, and Ridgewood Ranch: Home of Seabiscuit author Jani Buron.

As always, Universal includes the My Scenes feature and BD-Live access.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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