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Seabiscuit

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
Seabiscuit

from Film Forum, 07/31/03

Writer/director Gary Ross (Big, Dave, Pleasantville) may have another winner on his hands. Seabiscuit is thrilling audiences with its tale of an underdog (underhorse?) that became an inspiration to Americans in the late '30s. Rumor has it that the movie can make a grown man cry.

But this horse might not reach its stride until its second week, as word-of-mouth takes its course. Seabiscuit took fifth place at the box office over the weekend, behind such critically maligned stinkers as Bad Boys 2, Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, and the much-praised summer adventure film Pirates of the Caribbean. (Meanwhile, Pixar's animated hit Finding Nemo went on to become the biggest box-office cartoon of all time, passing The Lion King's total of $312.8 million.)

Seabiscuit stars Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski) as owner Charles Howard, Oscar-winner Chris Cooper (Adaptation) as talented trainer Tom Smith, and Spiderman's Tobey Maguire as Johnny Pollard, the not-so-little jockey that could.

All three actors earn applause from critics, many of whom predict that the film could have a shot at an Oscar nomination. Critics in the religious press are fairly impressed as well, posting only a few mild cautions and complaints.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says the film is "buoyed by nuanced performances," riveting, and handsomely shot. The story, she says, "serves as a metaphor for how the country was able to weather the Depression and survive. It's a very American story about the land of opportunity and second chances."

In spite of these strengths, Pare says the horse loses its natural grace at the end. "Distressingly, the film's climactic race relies more on swelling music than thrilling visuals."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) agrees: "It stumbles a bit near the finish line, when it becomes overly sentimental and anticlimactic. [But] Seabiscuit is a feel-good film that earns its sentiment, and the craft on display, particularly in the performances of Bridges and Cooper, is testimony to the best Hollywood offers."

Steven Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "While not great moviemaking, Seabiscuit has a great subject and a great story to tell, and its winning theme of the little guy with the heart of a champion may just leave you feeling great as well."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) raves, "While the acting of this fine cast is commendable, it by no means steals focus from the reason to see the film. The star of this film is, and always has been, the story itself. If you or any member of your family is unfamiliar with the Seabiscuit saga, I urge you to see this movie."

Running the other way, Movieguide's critic says, "The good feelings generated by the movie's moral, redemptive, and patriotic worldview are spoiled by foul language, sexual content, and a brief socialist element or two."

While she cautions parents not to take their younger children, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "It's always good for the soul to see a true story about perseverance, overcoming the odds, and being renewed with a little hope and love." But she too is upset that the filmmakers included foul language: "Why screenwriters think that cursing God and Jesus numerous times throughout a movie would add anything to the story is insulting."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) is pleased to see audiences cheering "a film of substance during a summer movie season dominated by sequels, explosions, special effects and bathroom humor." He joins the chorus of complaint, however, faulting it for showing characters drinking alcohol and spending time at a brothel. Perhaps this true story would have made a better film if it had been less realistic.

Strangely, those critics upset about the language and the brothel scene register little or no complaint about the ethical indiscretion at the center of the film. Mainstream critic Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) picks up on that: "If Seabiscuit has a weakness, it's the movie's curious indifference to betting." He concludes that he "liked the movie a whole lot without quite loving it. Ross and his cinematographer, John Schwartzman, get amazingly close to the action. The movie gives me a much better sense of how difficult and dangerous it is to ride one of those grand animals in a race."

David Denby (New Yorker) calls the film "effective and satisfying—both realistic and poetic, and always vivid emotionally." But he frowns at "an element of Oscar-grabbing opportunism and bullying…. When a director exploits our hardwired responses to pathos, he fails, so to speak, a test of honor. For all his skill and tact, Gary Ross often fails in that way. At its worst, the triumphalism of Seabiscuit is not far from the shiny American glow emanating from an official Presidential-campaign film."

Steve Salier (UPI) is harsher on the film. "Seabiscuit … turns out to be 2003's Road to Perdition: a gorgeous but dramatically inert lump of summer Oscar-bait. Ross's long, sentimental, and predictable script is an object lesson in how not to adapt a good book."

from Film Forum, 08/07/03

D.J. Williams (Christian Spotlight) calls Seabiscuit "not only a great film, but the best film so far this year. The uplifting story is one that is sure to resound with audiences across the country, and the emotional journey of the film is one that everyone can relate to."

Roger Thomas (EthicsDaily) testifies, "It has been a long time since I have seen a film audience burst into applause, yet this happened not once but twice in my screening of Seabiscuit."

Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Tobey Maquire's voice over at the end of the film says that Seabiscuit healed the broken people in the story. But it isn't the horse that heals, rather, the healing takes place through the symbiosis that occurs when all these broken characters come together. The community heals—whether that is the community of the quasi-family built up around Seabiscuit, or the community of the American people coming together in celebration of this underdog horse."

from Film Forum, 08/14/03

Other religious press film critics are catching up with Seabiscuit, the inspiring story of a 1930s racehorse. (Film Forum focused on the film two weeks ago.) Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "The inspiration of this film is that it shows the way a group of broken people can come together in a supportive community and make the impossible happen."

Brett Younger looks at the message of Seabiscuit at EthicsDaily: "We all instinctively understand how much we need the grace of a second chance. Christians should recognize the message as central to our faith."


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