Three Men And a Horsey

There isn’t much to admire in today’s movies, but whatever there is, there is plenty of it in Seabiscuit . This is one terrific movie about one terrific horse that not only changed the course of horse-racing but altered the face of a nation in crisis. I can’t think of a better time for an inspiring movie about anything, especially a beloved four-legged champion, and in fact a cheerful family film called The Story of Seabiscuit was already made in 1949 with Shirley Temple. But this is the real deal, warts and all, and since it enthralls on so many levels-emotional, cinematic, historic-if you don’t go away entertained, informed and sated with satisfaction, you need to have your pulse checked to see if you still have one.

Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit plants its roots before the horse ever reaches the starting gate. This is not only the story of a down-for-the-count horse that beat the odds to win the race of the century, but of the three men who created a miracle. Jeff Bridges plays Charles Howard, the self-made millionaire who started out in a bicycle shop, then jumped onto Henry Ford’s bandwagon when those new-fangled Model T’s were replacing horse-and-buggies on the open road, bred racehorses for fun, lost his shirt in the stock-market crash and then his faith in mankind when his son was killed in an automobile crash. Deserted by his wife, Howard was so grief-stricken that he closed and padlocked his stables and turned to a life of empty self-destruction and despair. Chris Cooper plays Tom Smith, a battered, disillusioned old cowboy with a special talent for talking to horses, whose western frontiers have vanished. And Tobey Maguire plays Johnny (Red) Pollard, the Canadian jockey who was orphaned by the Depression, a failure at every trade, embittered by poverty, scarred by too many losing fights in the boxing ring and blind in one eye. Three lost men, brought together accidentally by fate, whose troubles were reversed by a sick horse that didn’t have a chance. Seabiscuit was rescued from the glue factory by Smith, purchased for a rock-bottom price by Howard, and trained and groomed by Pollard. Limping and wheezing and fonder of sleeping and eating than exercise, he was wild, crazy, unpredictable and desperately in need of the three dedicated people who taught him how to act like a horse again. The film takes its time while the screenplay by the enormously talented director-writer Gary Ross, who also wrote Dave , Big and Pleasantville (which he also directed), allows you to get to know them all.

The structure of Seabiscuit is cleaved and subdivided by black-and-white stills and action footage from Movietone newsreels that weave the story of a horse and the three men who saved him into the historic fabric of the times, from the 1929 Wall Street collapse to the Depression bread lines to the migration west that reinforced America’s newly acquired sense of fear, cynicism and mortality, and gave new meaning to the word “hope.” What a perfect time for Seabiscuit to come along. By the time the film finally settles down and focuses on the horse and his downtrodden support team, you’ve already got a keen sense of the time, place and circumstances that swept America up in the need for national heroes, whether they had two legs or four. Radio was sweeping the country, 85 million people a week were pouring into the movies to seek escape from unemployment and financial ruin, gambling offered false illusions to legions of those who had lost their jobs, homes and security, and the fastest-growing spectator sport in America was thoroughbred racing. When Seabiscuit broke all records and made racing history in the Santa Anita Handicap in 1937, 90 percent of all American homes owned a radio, and most of them were either betting on this two-to-one long shot to win or cheering him on while he did it. Seabiscuit was a symbol of the hope that pulled a country back together and led a diminished people across the finish line.

In my opinion, Mr. Ross is more successful painting this broader canvas of America trying to get off its knees along with Seabiscuit than he is illuminating the characters of Howard, Pollard and Smith. The film jumps around from San Francisco to Saratoga Springs to Pimlico like a quarterhorse heading for the paddock. But the horse/hope metaphor is loud and clear. “Sometimes all you need is a second chance,” says Howard, and he seems to be speaking for everyone in the film. The elements all blend to overcome Seabiscuit ‘s obvious parallels to the lost souls of the Depression before the movie sinks into tear-jerker sub-status, but still I’ll be darned if all those inspired heroics didn’t leave my eyes misty as a morning fog in Martha’s Vineyard. The owner, trainer and jockey conquer their own inner demons to bring in a winner, and the three stars who play them are all wonderful, although Tobey Maguire does look goofier than ever with Lucille Ball’s orange-popsicle hair. And there are some fine players in supporting roles, too: William H. Macy as Tick-Tock McGlaughlin, the flamboyant racing announcer who turned Seabiscuit into a public-relations dream; Elizabeth Banks as Howard’s second wife, Marcela, who rehabilitated a broken man and brought love and a distaff sensibility to Seabiscuit and his whole team; and real-life Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, making his acting debut as George (the Iceman) Woolf, the jockey who rode Seabiscuit to international stardom in a match race in 1938 after Red Pollard broke his leg in a multiple fracture just days before the race and Seabiscuit’s big “comeback.” And who will ever forget the amazing horse that plays Seabiscuit, the knobby-kneed nag that wouldn’t give up? While Mr. Ross tells you everything about the race-how many gallons of lemonade were sold that day, how many kegs of beer and pounds of hot dogs- Seabiscuit shows what it feels like to be a high-strung champion feeling the sting of a riding crop, as well as the quiet moments when he and his jockey inspire each other, displaying emotions that seem almost human. This horse is too good to be believed. Damned if it’s not Man o’ War, Native Dancer, Black Beauty, Trigger, Dan Patch and Thunderhead, son of Flicka-all rolled into one. On Oscar night, will somebody please come up with a gold-plated carrot?

Horses and history: It’s a grand combination, resulting in a rich and satisfying movie that honors the tradition of solid narrative filmmaking, while it illuminates a compelling true story with universal appeal in a thrilling, modern and exceptionally cinematic way. The movie of the summer, all right, and a sure-fire, stops-out sensation in the saddle.

War Games

Talk about bad timing. Buffalo Soldiers was originally scheduled for release in the postwar lull between Iraq and tax extensions, when people were understandably searching for pleasant, mindless ways to pass time and get away from CNN. It’s been on the shelf a long time. Now that discontent still rages over the Bush administration’s efforts to teach the rest of the world about the Decline of the West or beat it to death trying, and while the entire world grows weary of body bags in a conflict that grows more pointless each day, it still seems like a grim time to release a cynical film about the greed and corruption of the U.S. military on foreign soil. Set on an Army base in West Germany in 1989, Buffalo Soldiers premiered almost two years ago at the Toronto Film Festival. Now here it is, like poison pee in the K-rations.

Australian director Gregor Jordan’s sour indictment of Americans in uniform, desecrating foreign soil for personal sport after the fall of the Berlin Wall, moves nervously and uneasily between the high drama of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the thinly veiled farce of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. On an American Army base near Stuttgart, the Cold War is boring the regulation socks off the 317th Supply Battalion. The center of the narrative zooms in on Specialist Fourth Class Ray Elwood, a brash, cocky, good-looking supply clerk (played with corrosive charisma by Joaquin Phoenix) who has nothing to kill except time. By day, he works as a secretary to a fatuous, incompetent colonel (Ed Harris) who fritters away his office hours on details like consignment slips for 1,000 gallons of Mop and Glo. By night, Elwood is a savvy privateer, efficiently stealing and looting supplies, ripping off the Germans and selling heroin, speed and cocaine on the black market. Elwood does the paper work, cooks up the dope and sells it to the military police, who in turn sell it to the enlisted-men junkies for fun and profit. In his spare time, Elwood also dispenses his sexual services to the colonel’s wife (Elizabeth McGovern). The smell of change is in the air, like a broken base latrine.

The big hurdle in Elwood’s pernicious little paradise comes with the arrival of new First Sergeant Robert Lee (Scott Glenn), a sinewy career man with a lot of hard muscle and no sense of humor, who aims to clean up the barracks and shape up the slackers. Elwood’s first fatal mistake is bedding the sergeant’s comely daughter (Anna Paquin). But Lee is a lockjawed veteran with three tours of duty in Vietnam under his belt and a killer you don’t want to cross anywhere but on a movie screen. He takes one look at Elwood’s expensive Rolex watch and kicks butt. His first order is target practice-with Elwood’s gorgeous new Mercedes as the target. With his illegal undercover activities at last showing up on the radar, truckloads of sophisticated weapons Elwood has been selling to the Germans for kilos of narcotics are locked in the Army’s nuclear base and the idiot colonel has sealed it off for a maneuver which he hopes will earn him a promotion . A neurotic and ruthless war of wills progresses to violence, betrayal and murder.

Good acting leavens this disturbing picture of Americans ostensibly defending the free world while subverting any illusions we still have about intrepid warriors in uniform. Although there isn’t one character in this film worth rooting for, the cast is uniformly superb, especially Scott Glenn, who has jazzed so many mediocre movies with his special mixture of lean magnetism and lethal danger that it is high time he lit up a vehicle of his own. Ultimately, Buffalo Soldiers is a complex story, repellent but full of tension and surprise. It holds attention raptly. The point of the exercise? The military does what it does, war or no war. If there’s nobody to kill, they’ll kill each other.

In my impossible-wish department: a special invitational screening hosted by Susan Sarandon at the White House screening room. It won’t happen, but I can dream, can’t I?