Film Length: 141 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1
Seabiscuit is a rare breed of a movie, one which relies on a great story and the ability of its actors for success, as opposed to over-the-top action, CGI effects, or its status as a sequel/prequel to a popular film. More specifically, Seabiscuit is a well-executed story that is uplifting, inspirational, and a refreshing throwback to the feel-good films of yesteryear. Adapted from the non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit is set during the years immediately following the Great Depression, which director/screenwriter Gary Ross notes during the opening sequence.
Though a combination of black and white pictures from the Depression-era and voice-over narration by historian David McCulloch, Mr. Ross provides an ample understanding of exactly how tragic a time this was for both the American people and the nation. Once the tone is set, the remarkable, emotional, and true story unfolds, which focuses on three men who rise from the ashes of their shattered lives, largely by rallying around a supposedly broken-down horse. In addition to helping to pull these fellows together, this “little-horse-that-could” becomes a symbol of hope for millions of struggling Americans.
One third of the aforementioned trio is John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), an intelligent young man from a learned family who happens to possess a love of horses, and the skill to ride them. As the Depression begins, his family steers him towards independence at an early age, by allowing him to leave them and take a job working with horses. To keep himself afloat, Red later tries his hand at boxing, which damages his eyesight. Eventually, he finds himself in the care of Charles Howard, and becomes the jockey that rides the legendary horse that Seabiscuit is based on.
Also redeemed by Seabiscuit is Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a “horse whisperer” with an uncanny ability to help horses realize their full potential that had taken to wandering on his own. The final piece of the puzzle is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), a self-made man who earned a fortune selling Buicks out west. Shortly after the Depression, Howard’s son is killed in a tragic accident, and his wife, who cannot cope, eventually leaves him. Betrayed by the very technology he had championed, a depressed, but not broken, Howard ends up in Mexico, where he meets and marries a lovely young woman and decides to try his hand in the horse racing business. Soon after deciding to embark on his new venture, Mr. Howard encounters Tom Smith and Red Pollard, and acting on Smith’s advice, he acquires a somewhat wild racehorse that no one seems to want because of his small size and seemingly lazy demeanor.
Interestingly, this horse, named Seabiscuit, had been trained to lose to larger, “better” horses, which would gain confidence from racing against him and winning. Together, this unlikely alliance of three very unique men and a valiant horse overcome some tough odds, including Pollard being both large for a jockey and blind in one eye, Seabiscuit’s initially wild racing style and temperament, and the lack of acceptance from established horse owners.
Simply put, this is a tried and true tale of underdogs that rise to almost every occasion, and doggedly refuse to fail, even though no one believes in them. What makes this tale so very powerful and inspiring though, is the fact that it all really happened. As far as execution goes, Gary Ross’ adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s book is handled adeptly, and despite being well over two hours long, Seabiscuit has excellent pacing. The characters are also well written, and especially well cast. In particular, Tobey Maguire is spectacular as a young man who has been through so very much, but never loses sight of his dream of being a champion rider, even when others (or his body) tell him he can’t do it.
The rest of the cast is no less magnificent. Chris Cooper, is remarkably understated as Tom Smith, and plays the role with the quiet confidence demanded by the part. Likewise, Jeff Bridges is energetic, nurturing, and endlessly optimistic as Charles Howard, a man who had big dreams and followed through on them, despite personal tragedies that would have consumed lesser men. It would also be remiss of me not to mention William H. Macy’s whimsical performance as a radio personality that covers the ponies.
As if everything I have mentioned so far is not enough, there are many more reasons why Seabiscuit is a film worthy of your time. For one, not only is the cinematography by John Schwartzman great, but Gary Ross made a concerted effort to get the audience right into the action during the horse races, instead of relying on distance shots. Moreover, the horse racing sequences are thoughtfully (and accurately) choreographed by professional rider Chris McCarron, and carefully edited to instill the senses of both awe and danger in the audience. Interestingly, Ross also allows the audience to hear some if the jockeys’ bantering in some of the close-ups during the horseracing scenes. Lastly, Randy Newman’s rousing score really enhances whatever is happening on the screen at any given time, and this is easily some of his best work.
What more can I say? This is a fantastic movie on every level, featuring touching performances, an admirable attention to period-specific details, and a skillfully executed screenplay. There is perhaps nothing Americans like better than to see an underdog succeed, as it is how this country came into being. And darn it all if this isn’t a textbook “underdog” success story, namely one of three people (and a horse) that overcome tremendous adversity to instill hope in millions. If you missed this one in the theaters, do yourself a big favor and see this when it streets. You will be glad you did!!!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
Seabiscuitlooked fabulous in the theater, and Universal’s anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer looks equally splendid in the home. Colors are perfectly saturated, with no banding or bleed, and flesh tones are spot-on. Blacks are equally deep and well-defined, giving the image a rich texture and excellent shadow detail. Likewise, the image is extremely clean, free of artifacts, mosquito noise, or specks.
John Scwartzman’s cinematography is also reproduced without the distracting halos that are brought on by edge enhancement (I did not notice any), and fine detail extends well into the background of scenes. Really, I cannot overstate how involving the lovely images in this film are, especially when presented like this. Everything looks great – the rolling terrain out west, the grand old racetracks, the colorful jockeys’ uniforms, and of course, the gallant and gorgeous racehorses. Universal has obviously taken a great deal of care to ensure that this release looks as good as it did in the cinema, and it gives me great pleasure to inform you that they have succeeded in crafting a breathtaking transfer that is befitting of this marvelous piece of filmmaking.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Seabiscuit comes racing into home theaters via a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that is almost as remarkable as this DVD’s video quality. To begin with, dialogue is warm and true, and is reproduced without the slightest hiss to interfere with its presentation. Since dialogue is such an important part of the film, I was pleased to find that it is mixed well with the effects and score, so there is never any problem determining what the characters are discussing, even during a race. Further, the front soundstage provides enough of a sense of width to allow Randy Newman’s wonderful score to work its magic.
Frequency response is also terrific throughout the entire audible spectrum, especially in the bottom end. With that in mind, bass response is both powerful and controlled, and you should almost be able to “feel” the magnificent horses in the film as they thunder across the plains or around the racetrack. There is also plenty of impact to be felt when Mr. Howard first acquires Seabiscuit and goes to visit him in the stables.
With respect to the rear channels, they are not terribly busy, but do bring a lot of subtle details out of the mix. For example, during outdoor sequences, they enrich the atmosphere by bringing chirping birds or crowd noise into the listening space. More importantly, they also contribute a great deal to the score. Overall, I have to say that this is well executed mix that accurately reproduces the source material, and brings the spirit of the film to life.
Feature Length Commentary:
For the feature length commentary, writer/director Gary Ross is joined by Oscar©-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich, Traffic). This dynamic duo’s comments are incredibly interesting and thoughtful, and throughout the two plus hours that Seabiscuit runs for, they carry out a remarkably thoughtful discussion of the concepts embodied in this film. Perhaps a better way of saying how much I liked this commentary track is that these two men do not pause a lot, but very little of their speech was wasted on trivialities.
As an aside, this commentary features a highly touted “virtual” commentary. Essentially, at certain points, the film will stop running, and Soderbergh and Ross will go into in-depth sidebar discussions about paticular events, characters, or scenes over still photos.
Some of the many highlights included:
--- A discussion about providing context for the story, and really driving home the tragic nature of the time, to set the stage for how important Seabiscuit was to so many Americans.
--- Ross and Soderbergh talking at length about the three very different men whose lives are brought back into balance through Seabiscuit.
--- The arrival of the automobile, and its affect on the American way of life is discussed, with attention paid to Charles Howard’s philosophy on what this great new piece of machinery would mean for the future. It is interesting to see how he is affected by the loss of his boy. At the beginning of the film, Howard says “I wouldn’t spend more than $5 for the best horse in America”, and by its end, he is singing the praises of his remarkable racehorse Seabiscuit.
You know, I could go on and on, but I think that you should give this track a listen and discover what elements of the discussion mean the most to you. If you liked the film, or have any interest whatsoever in learning more about the real events that inspired this film, then you should really enjoy your two hours with Mr. Ross and Mr. Soderbergh.
Bringing The Legend To Life: The Making of Seabiscuit
This interesting and informative featurette contains interviews with Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, and Gary Ross, among others, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, and segments from the Seabiscuit. There is also a nice interview with Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, which the film is based upon.
There is some fascinating insight provided over the course of this segment, including the fact that a total of ten horses were used to portray Seabiscuit in the film. Professional rider Chris McCarron also talks about how carefully the races were choreographed to resemble their historical counterparts. Finally, Gary Ross discusses the painstaking efforts made to ensure that even small details were true to the period of time encapsulated by the film, and the process of getting the cameras in tight on the racing action, to help draw the audience in. All in all, this is a very well put together featurette, that moves briskly yet provides a wealth of interesting information.
Photo Finish: Jeff Bridges’ On-The-Set Photographs
Jeff Bridges thought it would be a nice gesture to compile a photo album for some of the cast and crew. His efforts include some interesting (and weird) black and white stills that play over audio recordings that appear to coincide with the shot being shown. An unusual, but intriguing, photo gallery, particularly since it comes from the camera of one of the film’s stars.
Seabiscuit: Racing Through History
This featurette , which contains archival racing footage of Man-O-War and Seabiscuit, begins with director Gary Ross talking about the sporting world during the 1930s, where horse racing was a very prominent player. Historian David McCulloch participates as well, discussing the subtle and tragic effects of the Great Depression.
There are a whole host of other interesting details offered during the rest of the featurette, including more on Seabiscuit’s history, the fact that this horse was the most written about public figure in America during 1938 (in terms of newspaper column inches), and the hardships faced by jockeys during the 1930s. I hate to sound like a broken record, but this mini-documentary is as immensely educational and well put together as the other extras, and well worth the investment of time needed to view it.
Anatomy Of A Movie Moment
During this brief segment, Gary Ross talks about what he loved about working on Seabiscuit, which includes aspects both subtle and grandiose. He goes on to take the viewer through a couple of sequences from the film, which are overlayed by his production notes. Ross also outlines his philosophies on direction, setting up shots, using sound, and his endeavor to get the audience “lost in the story”.
The Longshot: A Special Message From Buick
This amusing commercial ties Seabiscuit’s owner, Charles Howard, in with Buick and provides a brief history of the company, along with an outline of its future offerings.
This bonus feature consists of nearly 30 pages that detail different aspects of the creation of Seabiscuit.
Universal has included soundtrack and Mastercard spots.
Cast and Filmmaker: Bios and Filmographies
Brief biographies and filmographies are available for Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Elizabeth Banks, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy, and Gary Ross.
NOTES: If all of this doesn’t sound like enough, there is a two-disc edition of Seabiscuit available, featuring the Match Race (1938) between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, a featurette entitled Winners’ Circle: The Heroes Behind the Legend, The True Story of Seabiscuit featurette, and the HBO First Look: Seabiscuit.
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Seabiscuit is a phenomenal piece of inspirational and uplifting filmmaking. To put it mildly, I was quite impressed by the care taken to bring this legendary (and true) story to the screen, and by the caliber of the script, performances, cinematography, and direction. This is a good movie on every level, and I am sure that I will revisit this film as soon as I have the opportunity to do so, particularly if I need cheering up. With that in mind, I dare you to try and feel bad after watching this movie!
Fortunately, this great movie gets first class treatment by Universal home video, and comes to the small screen (not anyone on this forum’s TV, I trust ) featuring a stellar transfer and solid audio track. Better still, the extras on the single-disc edition of Seabiscuit to keep one busy for several hours, and almost every one of them is excellent. In short, a great movie gets a great DVD!
If you haven’t seen Seabiscuit yet, circle December 16th on your calendar and go pick this movie up!!! Unlike most people’s first impression of Seabiscuit the horse, this one is a guaranteed winner, and will make a fine addition to any movie buff’s library! Very highly recommended!!!
P.S. – There is also a two-disc “limited edition” of Seabiscuit available. Please see the NOTES section at the end of the extras description for details on its content.
December 16th, 2003