Even fifteen years later, I don't think that Ken Burns realizes what effect he's had on popular culture. The accomplishment of "The Civil War" is nothing short of incredible. It is an 11 hour historical documentary that is endlessly informative and watchable. All across the United States, people were suddenly interested in this period of American history when they previously weren't. Some of the factors that make this documentary so perfect are the haunting music, the vivid pictures, and the engrossing voice of narrator David McCullough. For many of us, this is the gold standard of accessible American history.
When audiences went to see "Seabiscuit" in the theaters, they were once again being taught an American history lesson by David McCullough using still photos and music. The still pictures eventually segue into the actual film, but McCullough remains, and the still photos return throughout. "Seabiscuit" is the story of a racehorse during the Great Depression that was once considered a hopeless loser, then became one of the greatest racehorses of all time. Seabiscuit is assisted into his place in history by jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges). Through Seabiscuit, all three of them find renewed purpose in their downtrodden lives.
And so, as McCullough tells us, did the country as well. His deep tones convey the importance of the story before he finishes his first sentence. People needed an underdog to root for more than ever before during the Great Depression, and they found him in the form of Seabiscuit. There were more than a few film critics who found this theme overplayed in the film and that it was too sappy for it's own good. There is a difference, though, in manipulating the audience and telling a story sincerely, and I think "Seabiscuit" is able to straddle that fine line quite well. What results is a movie that draws you in so much that you cease to care that something is reaching for your heartstrings.
All three of the lead actors acquit themselves well here. Jeff Bridges, who for the second time in his career is playing an optimistic automobile tycoon (the first was "Tucker: The Man and his Dream"), must have gotten some serious deja vu on the set. Still, he is never less than a magnetic presence on the screen. Tobey Maguire should also be used to the "little guy who makes big" role after his turns in the "Spiderman" films. The anger and frustration he displays is a little harsher than I've seen in his previous roles, and it's clear he wants to go darker earlier in his career so that he's not forever pegged as the smart, shy type. Chris Cooper ages himself quite a bit as Smith and in his silent way is more of a presence than the more exuberant Bridges and Maguire. He also gets some wonderful opportunities to illustrate his character, such as when this man of the west has trouble sleeping on a mattress and ends up going outside the house to sleep on the ground, staring up at the stars.
The story of Seabiscuit is a slice of Americana that works better than most modern attempts. It may not be in a league with the great Steinbeck films "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men", but the story it tells is very much worth telling. It is a part of our history that, once again, we are happy to have discovered.
Eight out of Ten