What can one say about a movie that does almost everything absolutely brilliantly, but fails to deliver where it counts the most? Should the film be looked at as a success for succeeding almost perfectly or as a failure for falling down at crucial moments? That is the question which must inevitably be asked of Seabiscuit, which is coming to Blu-ray for the first time this week.
The story is narrated in exquisite fashion by David McCullough. The film is based on the non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand. It is the tale of a horse, jockey, trainer, and owner who overcome obstacles and — the box and all the promotional material are big on telling the viewer — helped raise the nation's spirit during the Great Depression. Director George Ross manages to pull the audience's heartstrings in just the right way so as to get the everyone rooting for the undersized horse who could even though the outcome was never in doubt.
Ross is aided by good performances by Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Tobey Maguire, who play the owner, trainer, and jockey respectively. Each actor truly inhabits the characters they are portraying in an entirely believable fashion, making three dimensional characters out of a script that does little to aid the actors. When motivations for any characters exist they are obvious and laid bare, not requiring the viewer to contemplate them in any way; and when they don't exist, that seems to be done to make the characters, particularly Cooper's Tom Smith, mysterious.
The most fun performance though is William H. Macy's. Macy appears as Tick Tock McGlaughlin, a reporter — and the film's comic relief — who follows racing and Seabiscuit. Tick Tock's Foley artist work is hysterical and a welcome break in an otherwise very straight film.
Where the film falls down is during the race sequences. In wide shots they are exciting and thrilling – even with the outcomes being a foregone conclusion. The amount of work that went into organizing those sequences is apparent and very well produced indeed. The problem exists in the close-ups. Whatever the truth of the filming may be, every single time there's a close-up on Tobey Maguire's Red Pollard or any of the other jockeys it looks as though they are sitting comfortably on a fake horse and pulling the bridle to make the horse's head bob up and down. The viewer constantly expects the camera to pull out and reveal the artifice. The only thing in the foreground of the frame that ever seems to be moving are the horses' heads and the jockeys' arms, and it just doesn't feel truthful.
The sound design during the races is far better, placing the audience squarely in the midst of the thundering hooves and roaring crowds. The sound doesn't let down during the rest of the feature either, with clear, crisp, sounds and good use of the surrounds and bass. The picture is equally good, with bright colors and beautiful detail. I had no idea before watching that the Great Depression was such a beautiful time in our nation's history.
As expected, the Blu-ray comes loaded with special features, some of which previously appeared on the HD DVD release of the film. There are several different "making of" documentaries, including an HBO First Look episode. There are also documentaries focusing on the truth behind the story, the best of which is an A&E special.
Also included is actual footage of the race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral and feature commentary with Gary Ross and Steven Soderbergh (who produced Ross's directorial debut, Pleasantville). Some photos Jeff Bridges took on set are also included on the disc and prove momentarily interesting. The oddest inclusion of the bonus features is one entitled "The Longshot: A Special Message from Buick," which is essentially just an extended commercial for the car company.
Seabiscuit succeeds at telling a compelling story, pulling the heartstrings of the viewer, and has solid performances from A-list actors. It looks beautiful, sounds beautiful, and the Blu-ray actually delves into the truth between the race horse and those involved with the horse. If only one could believe any of the close-ups during the racing scenes took place with the actors on horses, and that the horses were moving, then the film would be a crashing success. As it stands however, those scenes, some of the most important ones in the film, completely destroy the illusion being created by the filmmakers and irreversibly hurt the film. Is it enough to make this into a bad movie? No, but it does become a disappointment.