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Seabiscuit

SLEEK, BEAUTIFUL, packed with understated emotions, not too flashy and with a lot of heart — all go to make this Universal Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment venture, "Seabiscuit," a film worthy of all praise.

For an unlikely, but majestic subject — a horse that wins against all odds in post-depression America. A much-loved animal that became a legend in the racing circles and a being that redeemed the life of three broken men.

Seabiscuits were hard squares of naval rations, made more for longevity than taste. Soldiers could apparently even hammer nails on it and not make a dent and so before eating, the biscuits had to be soaked for hours. But they were the only things that would survive anything. So too is the main hero of this film, a horse named after something that was hardy.

Based on Laura Hillenbrand's best selling book, "Seabiscuit," an American Legend, director/writer Gary Ross crafts a slow, but intriguing tale set in the early 1900s.

The book chronicles the life of a dumpy horse that was given up as no good, till it was trained to win races by the forces of destiny that brought together three men in this pursuit of victory.

Seabiscuit was such a phenomenon that even President Roosevelt was supposed to have followed his races And when you watch this movie you will understand why.

When the film begins, there may be some ambiguity about the three lives unfolding simultaneously — that of Johnny `Red' Pollard (Tobey Maguire) a talented son of Irish immigrants who lose plenty in the Depression and is sent to train to ride horses professionally; Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a cowboy becoming obsolete in the world of development; and an automobile millionaire, Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) who loses his money and son in the Slump.

Then there is the sleepy, probably lazy horse dumped by the trainer. This is when Tom Smith sees something in both the nag and Pollard who seem to need a proper channel for their aggression and angst. Bringing them together is Charles Howard who, upon being advised by Smith, buys this horse called Seabiscuit — the process of redemption then starts for all four of them.

What follows is a string of amazing victories and Charles now hungers for more. He pitches the battle on a national level and goads War Admiral into a race of a lifetime with an unheard of prize money.

It is difficult for most to present something like this without losing out on the drama. But here the director employs a softer approach. He is never unclear and trusts the viewers to pick up the signals rather than putting them through emotional highs and lows. The visuals are startlingly beautiful, especially the way the races have been choreographed, — and the narrative flows with natural grace from one sequence to the other.

Of course you would guess the outcome. But the viewing is made superlative thanks to the terrific performance of the trio and some astounding race sequences complemented by poignant bits of background scores.

The director uses some black and white photographs as montages with telling effect. As Pollard, Tobey is the somewhat dreamy-eyed youngster who never says die — he gives a vulnerable, yet forceful performance. Cooper as the `crackpot ' trainer conveys very well the essence of the man who is almost clairvoyant in his bonding with animals, while Bridges plays the perfect expansive, tender-hearted entrepreneur. Elizabeth Banks as Howard's second wife puts in a good performance too, just as Gary Stevens as Seabiscuit's other rider, George Woolf. In fact the relationship between Pollard and Woolf is one of the moving things in this film awash with nostalgia, gallantry and bittersweet situations.

CHITRA MAHESH

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