dir: Gary Ross
[img_assist|nid=995|title=America's Phar Lap|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=404|height=408]
It’s a mediocre film masquerading as an Oscarbait ‘prestige’ contender. It’s flawed, obvious, cliché and hackneyed. The actors are mostly outacted by the horse. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t still find it sweet and enjoyable, damn my eyes.

Goddamn me it hurts to admit that. It makes me want to get liver-rupturingly drunk and binge on hard Class A drugs in order to regain my equilibrium after that admission. It wouldn’t change the fact that I genuinely enjoyed the film, despite its shallow nature and emotional manipulativeness. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a pic about horses, seeing as I have a weakness for the ponies. Not so much the gambling aspect, since the indentured servitude that passes for employment in my life doesn’t leave me a whole hell of a lot of money for wasting on beting. But there is just something that appeals to me about horse racing.

Perhaps it’s just the horses themselves, which are huge, beautiful creatures. Sure, I’m not a teenage girl who loves rubbing up and down on her saddle all day long and mistaking it for the joy that only her pony can bring, but I am in awe of the animals. And I love watching them run in races. I’m not ignorant of the cruelty arguments made by proponents of animal rights issues, and I am sympathetic to those arguments only up to the point where I’m supposed to care. All the whippings in the world and the shooting of horses that break their legs on the track aren’t going to change my love of horse racing.

Each race has an outcome based on chaos (what is spuriously called ‘luck’) as well as the abilities of the jockey and the horse. The odds-on favourites don’t always win, and placing bets on horses with longer odds often pays more than betting conservatively on the favourites over the course of a day. Horses past their use-by date with ridiculous odds can win against younger horses that outclass them because it is their day.

Of course all of these elements aren’t exclusive to racing, they apply pretty much to any sport, and sport being notoriously susceptible to the feel-good movie treatment makes for box office winners, which is what people want, more than anything. More than sex, love, money or heroin, they want movies that make them feel good.

They add to this the story of America’s floundering amidst the wreckage of the Great Drepression. The phoenix-life rebirth of America is juxtaposed with the rebuilding of four lives: entrepreneur Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) who is heartbroken after the loss of his son and the collapse of his marriage; strange jack of no trades Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) who is the tallest jockey I’ve ever seen and a boxer so ineffective that my dead grandmother could beat him up; a midget horse trained to be a loser (Seabiscuit, probably played by a bunch of horses that are now dog food and or glue), and an isolated horse whisperer who cares more for horses than people (Chris Cooper). None of them, in my humble opinion, really does that well. They are expected to just ‘be’ whatever they are called, thus there are only token elements of character development. All you need to know about Howard is that he’s really rich and his son died. All you need to know about the horse trainer Tom Smith is that he loves horses. All you need to know about Red Pollard is that his parents seemed to abandon him and in Howard he finds a surrogate father. All you need to know is what you end up knowing. There’s just these guys, and they’re wearing costumes, so they must be doing all right. Whilst I applaud economical story telling, it’s amazing that as superficially as the story treats the characters it still ends up being at least half an hour too long. At the beginning as the characters are being introduced, we see Howard’s son for the first time. They have a 20 second conversation. A minute later the kid is dead. Another minute later Howard has grieved and we move on.

I guess what’s important is that having as few scenes of people talking as possible is a good thing. It’s also the reason why in general no-one gets a line of dialogue longer than about ten words on average.

But it matters little. As clumsy a storyteller as director Gary Ross is, even he can’t stop the natural joyous light of Seabiscuit’s story from shining through. An additional example of this amateurish clumsiness is a scene where the horse trainer is wondering who the jockey for Seabiscuit should be. As handlers struggle with the horse, Smith sees at the other end of the mise en scene the jockey Red fighting with multiple stableboys at the same time, showing his indomitable fighting spirit. To make his point further, the director gets Cooper to turn from the horse, to Tobey, back to the horse, back to Tobey, back to the horse again, and I just remember thinking, “surely he could do it another 10 or 20 times until we get the point?”

Well, it’s not like we were expecting or perhaps even desiring subtlety in a film of this type. Not only does the story represent David and Goliath battles, we need the ‘villain’ of the piece, the owner of rival thoroughbred War Admiral, to actually state it in the script. The film has multiple scenes where owner Howard is standing at the back of the last carriage of a train speechifying to large groups of the common folk telling them that Seabiscuit is the hero of the common man, the salt of the earth. What’s strange is that you’d have thought he could have taken this opportunity to launch his bid for the governorship of the state of California or at least run for President. I don’t doubt that Seabiscuit eventually became a national treasure for his guts, his grit and his moxie, but I can’t understand why people would congregate in large numbers to listen to Howard preach the good word. Maybe since they were unemployed they had nothing to keep themselves occupied with apart from speeches. Maybe speeches were the tractor pull or monster truck rally of their day.

Not only does Howard, when trying to agitate the owners of the best racehorse of the day, War Admiral, pretend that it’s a class war between the poor, humble folks of the New Frontier West and the haughty East Coasters, with their money, their posture and their bigger horses, but he even pretends his motives are anything but personal. I don’t personally know what Howard’s motives were, I’m sure they’re not too opaque, but as the film represents it his urging for a match race between the two horses comes across purely as an issue of pride. As a parvenu new upstart member of the nouveau rich, his motives seem to be purely about acceptability in old money Eastern society. It’s just an older version of the East Coast / West Coast rivalry which dominated rap music a few years ago.

At least back in the 30s, not as many people lost their lives in the no-less-bitter rivalry that exploded onto the racecourse. All I’m saying is that it’s a bit rich for the millionaire Howard to depict himself or be depicted as a hero of the working class standing up to the fat cats. As an example War Admiral’s owner Samuel Riddle looks like the cliché fatcat you’d expect to see in another version of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Whether it’s believable or not the rags to riches tale captures the attention and the hearts of Americans trying to piece back together their lives following the cataclysmic repercussions of the Depression. If the film is to be believed, Seabiscuit and its jockey represents the indomitable, never-say-die, kill yourself to achieve your goals dedication that made America the globe strutting superpower that it is today. Which is great, really. There’s something in that for all of us. We should not take notice of our limitations and what other people say we can achieve, we should go out there and give it our best and see what happens.

As is standard for sports movies, there really aren’t many surprises, we aren’t completely taken by surprise when our champion underdog wins, but we still feel the rush of pleasure when it happens, if it’s an effective movie, that is. And this is. Despite the utterly simplistic and abbreviated script, the mediocre direction and the mawkish, treacly sentimentality (compounded by the obvious and bombastic score) that pervades the endeavour, it still works despite Gary Ross’ best intentions. The score does deserve special mention, in that every time we’re meant to feel ‘sad’, the score helpfully tells us so with a string section. When we’re supposed to feel happy and triumphant, the horn section has a go. It’s great that this happens, because otherwise we’d have to rely on ourselves to work out how we’re supposed to feel about stuff, and no-one wants to do that.

I guess it’s petty to ridicule a film for doing what every other film of its type does with the helpful musical signposting, but then I can be capable of staggering pettiness, as my neighbour found out when she stole our recycle bin. I wonder how she’s enjoying life without eyebrows.

Nonetheless, had she watched this film, eyebrows or not, I’m sure she would have enjoyed it, because this film is squarely aimed at the ‘everybody’ market, that selective, highly erudite and discerning market that generally avoids feel good prestige pics like the plague that they are.

The racing scenes are done extremely well. There are one or two scenes that I couldn’t even guess as to how they were filmed. You get to feel the helter skelter sense of controlled mayhem that occurs on the track, or at least I did. There were an awful lot of scenes as well where it was pretty obvious that the horse’s head they were jacking up and down like it was a teenage girl giving her first blowjob was patently fake, but it looked good overall.

Also, amongst the actors the inclusion of living jockey legend Gary Stevens as George Woolf was a very good move. Stevens is one of the best jockeys to ever ride, and his inclusion gives the proceedings another layer of believability.

It is a film for the whole family (except maybe the scene in the whorehouse, but it’s tame). Old people who remember the Depression personally despite being 5 at the time, and never forget to tell you about it. Young girls who like horsies without understanding why until they hit puberty. Young boys who like anything that runs. Parents with families that they need to pacify for a few hours with a well-timed DVD. Old cranks and angry loners with houses full of cats who need something to lift their dying spirits. All of you could potentially find something to enjoy in this Valentine’s Day, Hallmark card of a film. Go out and buy a few copies of the DVD. It would be unpatriotic of you not to.

7 times I should have hated this film but couldn't, goddamn it, out of 10

"I think it's better to break a man's leg than his heart. " - Seabiscuit