Everybody loves the underdog. Especially in hard times such as these. We need to believe that dreams can come true — that the American Dream is still possible. Enter Seabiscuit. This movie is based on the bestselling book by Laura Hillenbrand and has been written for the screen and directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville). It's the story of a horseracing legend, a small horse no one thought could be a champion. His triumph is made possible because three men were able to pull themselves up from the bottom and live their dreams.
First, there is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), who follows his yearning to make it big by going to California in the 1920s. He opens a bicycle shop but knows a good thing when he sees it and switches to selling automobiles. Soon he has the largest Buick dealership in the West. But a family tragedy that leads to divorce takes away this wheeler-dealer's will to carry on. That is, until he meets a bedraggled cowboy, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper).
Smith has been watching the wide open spaces he loves being crisscrossed by barbed wire and railroads. Gifted with a near magical way with horses, especially difficult ones, he is hanging around the horse auctions when Howard first notices him nursing a horse with an injured leg. Smith tells the wealthy man: "You don’t throw a whole life away just ‘cause it’s banged up a little." As we look at these two loners, we realize that their lives, too, are in desperate need of saving.
Another one who needs help is John "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire). Born into a family of Irish immigrants, he demonstrates at an early age a natural talent for riding horses. After the family loses its money and home in the Crash of '29, his parents decide he would be better off living with a horse trainer. But John doesn't do well as a jockey. He's bigger than the other guys and constantly has to watch his weight. After trying to make additional money as a boxer, he ends up blind in one eye, a secret he keeps from everybody, along with his anger over being abandoned by his parents.
In Mexico with friends who hope to cheer him up, Howard meets Marcela Zabala (Elizabeth Banks), and they soon marry. They decide to buy a horserace and hire Smith to help them find one. Attracted by the look in his eyes, Smith chooses a small bay colt named Seabiscuit. Although he’s a grandson of the legendary Man 'O War, the horse is viewed as lazy and slow. He loves to eat and finds great pleasure in sleeping peacefully under the trees. But Smith is convinced Seabiscuit can be a winner. The knobby-kneed horse has heart and the will to win when under pressure.
In another surprising move, Smith and the Howards hire Red Pollard to be their jockey. From the outset, this young man has a wonderful rapport with Seabiscuit. Giving him free rein for a romp through the countryside, he recognizes that he is an amazing animal. Still, the horse goes into his first race scorned as a loser by track announcer Tick-Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy in a masterful comic performance). For Seabiscuit's three champions, things can only get better.
And they do. When Seabiscuit starts to stun the racing world with his blazing speed, Howard reclaims his exuberant belief in the future of endless possibilities. All this optimist's energy and charisma come to the fore when he challenges the snobby owner of War Admiral, a Triple Crown winner, to a match race. At first this Eastern aristocrat scorns the challenge and puts down the little horse from out West, but Howard persists. The race will pit the rich Eastern establishment's superstar against an underdog that has most of the country's common people behind him. Even after Red is injured while riding another horse, Howard and Smith decide to go on. They hire Red's friend, George Woolf (Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens), to ride Seabiscuit.
Director Ross uses the narration of American historian David McCullough to help convey the significance of the "Race of the Century" between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. It was the Depression. More than 25 million Americans were unemployed, and for many of them following Seabiscuit's exploits on the radio or from the packed infields of the racetracks was their only happy entertainment. They really needed a winner. Watching the film's recreation of that race, which was held at Pimlico on November 1, 1938, we are on the edge of our seats rooting for the long shot. More excitement is ahead after Seabiscuit returns to California and the team faces yet another challenge. This final quest proves their indominable spirit.
Seabiscuit crosses the finish line as a convincing winner with its robust story of an underdog horse and three nobodies who join him in what becomes an adventure for the whole country. The casting here makes all the difference in the world with full and richly developed performances by Jeff Bridges as the gung-ho Howard, Chris Cooper as the soft-spoken trainer Tom Smith, Tobey Maguire as the tough survivor John "Red" Pollard, and William H. Macy as the clever track radio announcer. This is a dream cast and along with the some 10 horses needed to play the various sides of Seabiscuit, they have created a very inspiring movie.