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‘Seabiscuit’ portrait of redemption

Story of legendary horse inspirational, beautifully shot
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gloriously shot and perfectly cast, “Seabiscuit” comes thundering into theaters, proving all that pre-race hype was justified.

Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend,” the film follows the story of the racehorse that became an unlikely symbol of hope in America during the Depression.

The story seems too good to be true: Three lost, broken men - a jockey, a trainer and the horse’s owner - come together and find not just success but redemption, with an animal that was so stubborn and scrawny, no one expected it would even cross the finish line.

But the story is true, and that makes the film even more inspirational.

And did we mention that Tobey Maguire takes his shirt off? Granted, he lost 23 pounds to play jockey “Red” Pollard, dropping the muscle he’d packed on to star in “Spider-Man.”

But the fact that he did star in “Spider-Man” - and became both a heartthrob and a serious leading man in the biggest hit of last year - is a huge source of his new film’s buzz, and it guarantees that “Seabiscuit” will be a success with every imaginable age group, even those who have no interest in racing or are too young to have heard of the horse.

For “Seabiscuit” is a rarity for this time of year: a film with a mind and a heart, one that says something instead of screaming it. The film opens Friday.

There’s a lot to say, too - so much that the film from writer-director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”) sometimes feels a like a Cliff’s Notes version of the three men’s lives, especially in the beginning when Ross crams in their backstories.

Charles Howard (a charismatic Jeff Bridges) became a millionaire in the 1920s by helping introduce cars to the West. Then his son died in a car accident and his marriage collapsed.

Tom Smith (Chris Cooper, always strong and sensitive) was a cowboy whose simple way of life was on the verge of obsolescence because of the advent of the automobile.

Pollard’s parents had educated him in the classics, but sent him away as a young man to become a jockey when the Depression hit. He got banged up, physically and emotionally, as a part-time boxer and ended up blind in one eye and embittered.

Skip forward to a few years later. Howard and his beautiful new wife, Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), wanted to buy a horse. They met Smith and asked for his guidance. Smith saw something special in Seabiscuit, and in Pollard.

Seabiscuit, though, liked to sleep and eat and he was too small - he had none of the majestic, intimidating splendor of War Admiral, the Triple Crown winner he’d eventually end up beating. Pollard was temperamental and too big to be a jockey at 5-foot-7.

But he and his makeshift family of Howard and Smith turned Seabiscuit into a champion - which Ross and cinematographer John Schwartzman capture vividly in the film’s thrilling race sequences. Ten different horses played Seabiscuit, and the filmmakers set up cameras at every possible angle to make you feel the thunder of hooves and the dirt kicking up in your face.

All of this may sound emotionally heavy-handed, and it can be. Sometimes, too, it feels like a PBS documentary, with the soothing, familiar voice of historian David McCullough providing narration on why Seabiscuit mattered to this country at this time.

Thankfully, there’s William H. Macy, who’s hilariously effervescent and provides much-needed comic relief as rapid-fire radio reporter “Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin, a character created for the film to serve as a sort of Greek chorus.

But it’s the film’s prevailing sentiment - “You don’t throw a whole life away just ’cause it’s banged up a little” - that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.