As I write this review, the 2009 Preakness has just concluded, with Rachel Alexandra winning, becoming the first filly (female horse) in 85 years to do so. Yet the last few years, horse racing has encountered two injuries to horses on racetracks, injuries which eventually proved to be fatal, and have had many people avoiding the sport altogether. In some respects, horse racing might be considered to be withering on the vine of public opinion, a far cry from my days growing up and seeing Seattle Slew and Affirmed. But the sport did get a minor boost in the eyes of many when Seabiscuit came to theaters.
Gary Ross (Pleasantville) adapted and directed the Laura Hillenbrand best-seller. Rather than shift the focus of the film to the horse and why he was so special, Ross takes a different approach, examining the arcs of four separate characters. The first is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski), a successful automobile salesman who shifted his attention to horses, but experienced a tragedy when his son was killed in an automobile accident. Next is Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, American Beauty) is a quiet and soft-spoken trainer who has unorthodox training methods and doesn't hesitate to take on a horse that many others would cast aside. Along with Tom is Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man) is a jockey who frequently gets into fights and is losing vision in one of his eyes. Then you have Seabiscuit. A foal that didn't live up to the potential of his sire and was reduced to training other horses, being forced to lose at every opportunity. Each character took various leaps of faith on one another, and the results would turn out to be magical. Seabiscuit, a horse with a blood relation to Man o'War won every major horse race up and down the West Coast in the late 1930s, and would eventually square off against War Admiral in what was described as the "Race of the Century."
Having neither seen the film nor read the book, the only thing I really remembered about Seabiscuit was publicity for the film. Universal designed it to be released to a horde of critical and popular praise, winning a couple armloads of awards in the process. I'm one who avoids these types of strategies, as I'd hope that people would eschew emotionally manipulative strategies and discover a movie for themselves. During Seabiscuit, you hear lines like "You don't throw away a whole life just 'cause it's banged up a little" and "I think it's better to break a man's leg than his heart," lines that could be used as comedic satire for your generic Oscar speech.
Plus, at 141 minutes, the film is way too long. It goes on a full half hour after a highly publicized race with War Admiral. To be fair to the filmmakers, both the horse and Pollard suffered separate injuries which required extensive rehabilitation. These injuries occurred before and after that race (respectively), and the film ends with Seabiscuit's successful comeback. But while I understand why the comeback had to be included, what I don't understand is why so much time had to transpire from presumed end to actual end. Ross had already established the bond between Red and Seabiscuit, and the time he takes in the third act is spent making another bond because of these new circumstances. A little excessive in my opinion.
On the plus side, Ross managed to let the audience connect to why and just how much people grabbed onto Seabiscuit as escapism from darker, tougher times. This is exhibited in the race with War Admiral, which was seen and/or heard by millions at the time. The appeal of a depression-era sports icon was evident in another film Universal released a couple of years later, the James J. Braddock boxing biopic Cinderella Man. But where that film took those themes and polished them up, Seabiscuit staked the claim to some effective emotional ground. In fact to a larger extent, he made the connection with man and horse a more visceral one as well, showing Red out on long, fast rides with the horse. Whether you like racing or not, getting out in the open country and going as fast as you can is an adventrous feeling.
Yet with all of this, I do have a quandary. As a dramatic film, it isn't that bad. In fact, looking at the way Ross tells the story, combined with adequate performances (of special note is Cooper), it's decent. But as a sports film, something which Seabiscuit can also claim to be, the filmmakers came in with the mindset of being the Raging Bull of depression-era horse films, and it just wasn't doing that. The thing that makes it so good as a standalone film is what hampers it as a sports film. In many successful sports films, there's no real magical leap of faith to take with the character. No wanting to pull for the underdog, er, horse. Because it's a convincing American story, it distracts from what many considered to be an average sports story.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Seabiscuit arrives on Blu-ray with a 2.35:1 1080p high definition presentation which is presumably the same used on the HD DVD. But the Blu-ray version of the film uses a BD-50 to stretch its legs out (the HD DVD was done on a HD-30 disc). Either way you shake it, the results are amazing to view. The early sequences have an almost rustic feel, with browns and a lot of earth tones dominating the screen, but looking fantastic with a lot of detail in both the foreground and background. When Seabiscuit starts racing in his colors, the reds pop from the screen. You can spot fine detail on things like the fields of grain and dirt tracks, and any one of a multitude of images could be considered reference quality. It's arguably Universal's best presentation on Blu-ray to date.
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless 5.1 surround soundtrack (to go with Spanish and French DTS tracks) kind of shows off like the horse does. In the softer dialogue sequences, the dialogue sounds strong, but when you get to the track, the horse racing sequences thunder through the room, a low disturbing roar of crisp clear sounds and subwoofer engagement. Horses running left to right on a track, either in practice or a race, sounds clearly evident and effective, and at the racing sequences, crowd activity comes from all channels, putting you in the middle of the action. Not having seen the film before, I couldn't tell you if the Dolby Digital-Plus treatment on the HD DVD rivals the lossless mix, but it's a safe guess the lossless track trumps the DD option.
For the Blu-ray, Universal has brought over the extras from the two-disc standard definition Gift Set, so in case you didn't shell out the money and are looking to upgrade for the supplements, you've got your reason. The first big thing is a commentary with Ross and Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), who joins him for the commentary, asks him questions and keeps the conversation moving as much as he can. They talk of the smaller themes of the film and their separate approaches to shooting a film. Ross brings more detail to the table about his reasoning for casting Maguire, Cooper and others, and what they do during the feature is stop and talk about things that aren't related to the film. What I mean is that they'll pause the film and discuss something related to filmmaking, or to the story outside of the production, and then go back into things. Even if you aren't interested by the film at all, the commentary is well worth the time to listen to.
Moving on, "Bringing Legend to Life" (15:06) looks at getting the book made into film, with Ross explaining how he came to the material, what he liked about it and what he wanted to do with it. Hillenbrand discusses why she wrote the book and what she thought of the script. The approach to the production is covered, briefly touching on production, wardrobe and set designs in the process, while the process of shooting the races is shown to some degree. It's informative though a little brief if you like the film. Next is "Anatomy of a Movie Moment" (4:45), where Ross explains the sequence where Howard learns the news of his son and his reaction to it, using the shot list to explain the motivations for particular shots, along with a split screen with him and the film. "Racing Through History" (14:53) looks at horse racing's place in Americana, discussed by Hillenbrand, Ross and David McCullough, who is the film's narrator. They explain why Seabiscuit struck such a chord in the country, and lots of old footage of the horse (along with War Admiral and Man o'War), and discusses the ordeals of Red, not to mention of jockeys in general, and why some people still enjoy horse racing. It's an interesting piece which provides context. "Photo Finish" (5:21) is a series of Jeff Bridges' still photos set to production audio, and many of these stills were used in a cast and crew book which he provided as a gift. "The Longshot" talks about Howard's Buick experience and Buick in general, with voiceover that sounds like Jon Lovitz. The 1938 Seabiscuit-War Admiral race is next (2:12), with newsreel footage that looks decent for its age. "Winners' Circle" (20:15) is your place to see what the cast thought of the material and the preparation they took for their roles, with lots of on-set footage sprinkled in to boot. Hillenbrand also chimes in with her thoughts on the historical characters and how good of a job the actors did filling said roles. I'm pretty sure some of this could have been trimmed and consolidated into other supplements, but oh well. The HBO First Look is included (13:02), but after seeing the other extras, this feels largely repetitive. To some degree the A&E special "The True Story of Seabiscuit" (45:12) falls along those lines too. Narrated by William Macy, who plays the reporter "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin in the film, it includes the requisite quota of film footage and cast interviews, but also includes interviews with people within horse racing and a couple of people that met and worked with Red. The events in this documentary almost fall along the lines of the film, except in a much shorter timeframe. This concludes a weighty Blu-ray disc that's also BD-Live enabled for downloading of other Universal content.
Seabiscuit might not be a sports movie top shelf film like Hoosiers, Bull Durham or Rocky, but the story of the legendary racehorse is worth exploring, and in high definition, you'll find fewer better looking and sounding titles out there. And if you find yourself liking the film, then the supplements will help to further cement the experience. For HD DVD buyers, it's worth the upgrade for the lossless track alone, and worth consideration of buying to others.