Customer Review

Reviewed in Canada on October 12, 2003
I don't make a habit of reading bestsellers the moment they come out, and sometimes that's a blessing. If a movie version does crop up in the intervening year or two it may take me to get around to a former NYT Bestseller, I can judge it with fresh eyes. Yes, I do believe that nine times out of ten, the book was better, and that perception can sometimes ruin a perfectly good-of-kind movie.
As a librarian, I've been hearing the buzz on Laura Hillenbrand's book for the past year and a half now, both from reading the reviews and just from talking to patrons at my library who have read--and almost universally loved it. I did happen to catch a recent PBS documentary on the Seabiscuit phenomenon in which Hillenbrand was interviewed extensively. So I guess I know more about this particular books than the 3,000 others on my list of "must-reads."
And watching the movie probably tells me even more about this book that I may or may not get around to reading one day. It's one of those films that is clearly laboring to be faithful to the book that inspired it that it gets a little clunky. The lengthy expositionary scenes are perhaps the best example of what I'm talking about. It takes so long for Seabiscuit to actually arrive on the scene, you may start wondering if you're watching the wrong horse movie.
There may have been a more expeditious way to show how Charles Howard made his fortune, for instance, or that his first marriage failed after the tragic death of his son. Conversely, Red Pollard's marriage is not portrayed, even though it was touched upon considerably in the PBS documentary, with his daughter serving as one of the main voices in that film. Some inclusion of that aspect of Pollard's personal life might have been warranted, since without any reference to adult relationships in his life, he comes across as something of a big (if proud and determined) kid.
And speaking of kids, given how frequently twenty-something actors play teenagers, did it really make sense to cast another, younger actor in the role of the adolescent Red Pollard--especially one who looks absolutely nothing like Tobey Maguire? Has it really been THAT long since THE ICE STORM?
Others have already commented on the questionableness of using documentary footage and stills from the period, and David McCullough's voiceovers seem oddly out of place. I've already seen one PBS doc on this subject, I don't need another. This kind of movie shorthand is just too obvious. A more creative way of establishing time and place would have been preferable.
I know that fans of this movie are probably already planning to click on the "unhelpful" button at this point, but ironically or not, I would still recommend SEABISCUIT. Once the film gets past all the exposition, it picks up its pace, literally and figuratively, and turns out to be compelling cinema. The performances are all solid, the cinematography excellent. And you'd have to have a heart of stone to walk out of the movie without a little lump in your throat.
SEABISCUIT is one of those movies where a little patience on the viewers' part is eventually rewarded. During the first twenty minutes or so of the screening I attended, there were people who got up and walked out. Too bad for them. As with many a book, and many of the films based on them, it gets better as you go along.
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