Few films provide the historical context for unusual events in any depth. A brilliant exception is Seabiscuit, directed by Gary Ross, whose desire to recreate moods from past decades brought about Pleasantville (1998). Thanks to the historical novel Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, the film is far more accurate than the earlier The Story of Seabiscuit (1949), which crudely tried to use racing as a backdrop for a love story. The film Seabiscuit starts with the grandfatherly voice of David McCullough, who explains that Henry Ford’s real innovation was not the Model T but the use of assembly line production in 1903. The film then focuses on how San Francisco bicycle shop owner Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges) is transformed when the owner of a Stanley Steamer, which breaks down in front of his shop, asks him to make repairs. Soon, Howard is making a mint selling cars. Later, he decides to invest in something with fewer horsepowers than a car, but perhaps something more reliable and satisfying, namely, racehorses. McCullough’s voiceover next talks about the Great Depression, noting that there was some 25 percent unemployment while film footage captures long breadlines, whereupon the focus shifts to young Red Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), who is eager for a job as a jockey despite the loss of sight in one eye. Meanwhile, racehorse trainer Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper) has taken a fancy to Seabiscuit, a lazy horse of somewhat smaller size than most racehorses, not a thoroughbred but with a lot of spunk that other trainers find too much of challenge to channel into racing. Ultimately, Howard buys Seabiscuit, employs Smith as the trainer, and Red becomes the jockey, and Seabiscuit is winning race after race on the West Coast.  As the racing champion of the West, a challenge goes out to 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, in particular to the East Coast thoroughbred champion’s owner, arrogant and corpulent Samuel Riddle (played by Eddie Jones). One way in which the challenge is delivered is via the airwaves, broadcast by “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin (played by William H. Macy), whose amusing soundeffects-accompanied news briefs fill in some of the gaps in the voiceovers. When Riddle finally consents to a two-horse race at Pimlico, however, he employs underhanded tactics, and Red ends up with a serious leg injury. Nevertheless, Red trains another jockey how to navigate the difficult Seabiscuit on the racetrack. Thus, as true underdogs, owner, trainer, jockey, and horse persevere, do not give up, and triumph over War Admiral in 1938, a horse race with more listeners than any other event in radio history due to the symbolism about the possible triumph of the humble over the mighty. Afterward, Seabiscuit also sustains an injury, which the veterinarian suggests will finish his career in horseracing. The final scene is Seabiscuit’s last race, the 1940 Santa Anita Derby, in which he comes from behind to win (an event recorded in the form of a statue of Seabiscuit that remains on display today at Santa Anita racetrack). The story is so touching that many hoped that Seabiscuit, nominated for best picture of 2003, would also come from behind to triumph over the other four major nominees. Alas, a fictional story with little redeeming social value won instead. But Hollywood may yet come to regret giving more votes to a story about the senseless use of weapons of mass destruction than for a paradigmatic story about the American Dream that once brought inspiration to millions of ordinary people. MH

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