If you’ve seen Pleasantville–the story of teenagers who are magically transported from 1990s reality into 1950s television–you know that its writer-director, Gary Ross, has a sly respect for nostalgia, especially when it’s felt for a past you didn’t live. Pleasantville‘s protagonists, the not-yet-famous Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, inhabited their vision of a pristine world and then slowly learned to distance themselves from it. The more disillusioned they became, the less rancor they felt about the present day–which may help to explain the film’s middling box-office career. Audiences today don’t have much feeling for unembittered irony.
Ross’s new film, his first since Pleasantville, draws on the same gentle mode; and yet this picture will surely bring him great rewards. The movie is Seabiscuit: a success story in the self-consciously American vein, based on a bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand about a great race horse of the 1930s and the troubled people who drew together around him. On the handsome face of it, this is a presold property, and not just because it features the now-stellar Maguire. Seabiscuit is literally and insistently about beating the odds, coming from behind, running free.
Almost inevitably, the movie begins and ends with evocations of America’s ultimate symbol of opportunity, the open road. Not so inevitably, these images are melancholy.
To start, Ross shows you period photographs of the Model T Ford–an instrument of mobility, yes, but one that helped doom America’s horse culture. To conclude, Ross gives you a winner’s-eye view of a race track, with nothing ahead but room to move. This image, too, is tricky, when you recall that the oval doesn’t lead anywhere, and that at this point the horse and jockey are finishing their careers. So, quietly, Seabiscuit demonstrates that its story plays out between two moments of loss: the withering away of rural, artisanal America, and the end of the New Deal era and its ethos of the common man. Nostalgia is surfeited; nostalgia is undone. Little wonder, in these shifty circumstances, that Seabiscuit’s owner, San Francisco auto dealer Charlie Howard, should be a great touter of America’s unlimited future, yet empty his garage of cars to make room for a horse.
As played by the innately self-confident Jeff Bridges, Howard is a born promoter–like that other auto salesman, Tucker–who nevertheless conveys a deep steadiness. Although he devotes half the movie to revving people up, Howard spends the other half calming them. This makes him something like nature’s gentleman Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), the hobo cowboy who becomes Seabiscuit’s trainer, except that Smith is all hands and Howard all mouth, Smith a soother of horses and Howard of humans.
The third principal two-legged character, jockey Red Pollard, is the most damaged of these people, the one who most needs calming; and so he is the one presented through Maguire’s uneasy intelligence. No matter what line of dialogue he delivers, in whichever film, Maguire seems to hold back some other remark, which is damn well going to remain his secret. But he doesn’t need words to hint at an inner life. When he edges into a stall in this movie and sees Seabiscuit for the first time, Maguire does nothing but widen his eyes slightly, and you know that some new life has begun in him.
Two more points of comparison between Seabiscuit and Pleasantville: In both movies, Ross has his characters discover that perfection isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and in both he makes the film mimic a genre of television. In Seabiscuit, that genre is the historical documentary–and to make sure the imitation is faithful, Ross’s pans and zooms across old photographs are accompanied by a narration by David McCullough, voice of The American Experience.