On August 2, for the first time in 52 years, I went to a movie that
I had seen the day before. The last time I did this, it was The
Day the Earth Stood Still, which I actually saw twice on
day two, being forced in between showings to suffer a second viewing
of Two Dollar Bettor, starring John Litel. The recent movie
the opening scene of Seabiscuit, I knew I was seeing a contender.
It opens strong, and it finishes ahead by three lengths. While there
can always be a dark horse, Seabiscuit is likely to be in
the winner’s circle at the Academy Awards next year. (Movie reviewers
are unlikely to resist the use of numerous horse racing metaphors,
The opening scene normally would have shouted, “Dud!” When was the
last time you saw a movie that was not a dud which opened with an
historical voice-over? A decade ago, Tombstone
did, but it was a Western, and the narrator was Robert Mitchum,
and he didn’t intrude again, once the opening credits were over.
In Seabiscuit, the narrator keeps coming back all through
the movie. This has long been the kiss of death, circumstantial
evidence that the director gave up trying to fit the jagged scenes
into a coherent whole. Even more remarkable, the movie’s scenes
are intermittently interrupted by sequences of black-and-white photos
from the 1930’s. The narrator then explains the era, with the photos
as supporting exhibits. The narrator just won’t shut up. Incredibly,
you don’t want him to shut up. That’s because it’s David McCullough,
the historical narrator of our generation.
McCullough first narrated his way into our lives in The
Civil War, Ken Burns’ incomparably successful PBS documentary,
which did not have a single living human being in any historical
scene. McCullough has graced other documentaries by Burns, but The
Civil War remains their joint masterpiece.
Our generation of sporadically educated Americans sits in front
of its TV screens, overwhelmed by sequences of historical images,
and cries out, “Tell us what is going on, Mr. McCullough. We are
lost.” Then his voice — not imperious, yet not exactly soothing,
either — comes on, and we become more calm. Like children on their
father’s lap, looking through his scrap book, our generation’s perception
of the past gets put back together by his comforting narratives.
David McCullough writes as well as he speaks. There is no more compelling
spinner of historical narratives in our day. Anyone who can make
John Adams into as lively and even likeable a figure as his wife
Abigail was is nothing short of a narrative alchemist, turning lead
into at least gold plate. (I say this as a professionally certified
though rusty historian.) The only man who could have given McCullough
a run for the narrative money in our day is Gore Vidal, who adopted
the historical novel instead. Vidal recognized McCullough’s narrative
gifts early, in his August 13, 1981 review of McCullough’s book
on Theodore Roosevelt’s youth, Mornings
on Horseback — a review, sadly, that has been removed
from the public Web, now that the New York Review of Books
has gone ruthlessly capitalistic and charges money for access to
McCullough begins by setting the scene for the movie, a summary
of Henry Ford’s incomparable achievement. When Ford began, we are
told, his plant could assemble one car in 13 hours. Five years later,
it was one car every 90 seconds. Ford’s technique, the conveyor
belt-driven production line, was then widely imitated, McCullough
says. This changed everything, he says. Well, it really did change
everything. It made America into a mass-production society. It made
Americans rich. McCullough’s voice-over and the photo images make
this truth clear.
The movie begins with automobiles. A contrast is present throughout
the movie: the sport of kings vs. the age of the automobile. Seabiscuit’s
owner is a highly successful car salesman who had not ridden a horse
in two decades in 1933.
The deliberate irony of both the book and the movie is that the
common man, empowered as never before by the automobile, supposedly
turned for inspiration to horse racing, and one horse in particular,
during an era in which, in the immortal phrase of Will Rogers, America
became the first nation to go to the poorhouse in an automobile.
The narrative and the dialogue put into the mouth of Seabiscuit’s
owner create the image of Seabiscuit as the discarded horse of great
lineage, who performed well only late in life, beating the other
thoroughbreds. Yes, we are told, he was a thoroughbred, but he would
have been the runt of the litter if horses were born in litters.
This made him a horse of choice for the common man to cheer.
His owner, Charles Howard, started out as a bicycle repairman-turned
salesman whose product was outmoded. A series of half a dozen scenes,
spanning at most two days, are brilliantly crafted to tell the story
of his transition from a failed bicycle salesman to a rich car dealer.
This really is the story of the great age of entrepreneurship: a
man with an untried technical skill who sees a better way to do
the job, and who gets rich as a result. I have never seen this truth
more effectively portrayed on-screen. Its brevity and its subtlety
are nothing short of artistry. McCullough’s narrative on Ford and
his era had introduced this theme perfectly. The scenes of the young
bicycle salesman who finds his calling and makes a fortune confirm
the narrative perfectly.
narrative insists that mass production was the beginning and end
of imagination. I have no idea what this means, but I am sure of
this much: the director asks the audience to employ imagination
on an unprecedented scale. In these scenes, Jeff Bridges, age 53,
plays a man of 30, and gets away with it.
There is another thematic contrast, and it is not particularly subtle.
McCullough tells us that in 1900, a common but gifted man could
make a huge fortune. The movie shows this through Howard. Then,
without warning, we are thrown into 1929 and the stock market crash.
This takes place immediately after a speech by Howard on the unlimited
potential of the future. This sets the scene for the movie’s rival
theme: the Great Depression and the need for hope.
At one point, McCullough’s voice returns and narrates a series of
Burns-like photographs of people employed by the New Deal’s tax-funded
make-work projects. McCullough identifies this as relief, and it
came with many names, he says: CCC, WPA, etc. Relief, he says, demonstrated
for the first time in a long time that “someone cared.” But who
was this “someone”? The sequence of photos ends with a photo of
a common man alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt. Nothing needs to be
said for anyone older than Jeff Bridges.
In the high-stakes race for the Academy Award, Seabiscuit
at this point rounds the first turn and races ahead by two lengths.
Here is the movie’s main central theme: little guys, creative at
their core, yet nonetheless little guys, symbolize America. They
challenge the establishment and win. To believe this regarding anything
connected with thoroughbred horse racing is the equivalent of believing
that Jeff Bridges might possibly be 30. It takes great imagination
and a willing suspension of disbelief.
The photography is breathtaking. It is quite properly reminiscent
of the movie’s sire, The
Black Stallion. The scenes of wild horses racing on the
Great Plains, the galloping Seabiscuit on various horse farms, the
in-pack scenes on the race tracks are simply spectacular. The pounding
of the hooves put us in the middle of the races. Again, The Black
Stallion is the obvious model.
This movie must be seen on a big screen. Even a large screen, high
definition, home entertainment television set will not do it justice,
let alone my 1987 20-inch model with the rattling plastic speaker
Randy Newman is one of a handful of composers who will be remembered
in a century as the creators of the only orchestral music of the
twentieth century that is worth listening to, other than Aaron Copeland.
All of these men have written for Hollywood movies. Think of Jerry
and John Williams (Star
Wars). Would anyone residing outside of New York City’s
Upper East Side openly admit that he prefers to listen to Igor Stravinsky
or John Cage? Really?
Newman not only wrote the film’s orchestral music, he assembled
a series of unexpected overlays for some of the early race scenes.
The first race features a powerful, fiddle-centered country music
band. The speed and power of racing are emphasized by the music.
In a later race, he selected a bluegrass band that I cannot identify
playing a song that I have never heard, and it works. As Seabiscuit’s
story develops and the tension builds, Newman superimposes good,
old-fashioned majestic Hollywood orchestral music over the races.
It works. It all works.
One of the early secrets of the success of American movies was the
fusion of music with visual images. As early as King
Kong, the music helped shape the movie. Try to imagine O
Brother, Where Art Thou? without a sound track. The British
caught on earlier than Europe did, but it took them decades. How
many French movies in the 1960’s had some gangster car chase scene,
with light jazz as the background? I could provide an accurate estimate
if I went to a French movie more than once every thirty years. (The
French are a nation of self-proclaimed aesthetes who think Jerry
Lewis is hilarious.)
There is not one bad performance, not one miscast actor or actress.
But William H. Macy, once again, proves that he is the scene thief
of our generation. It is a thing of wonder to behold. He comes on-screen,
accompanied only by an unnamed, rarely speaking blonde, and deftly
picks the collective pockets of the entire cast. He doesn’t do it
once; he keeps doing it, scene after scene. I can almost imagine
him returning each wallet, now empty, to each of the cast members,
who are meekly lined up against the wall. He walks down the line
saying, “Thank you. Thank you so much. I really did appreciate this
opportunity. Again, thank you.”
The only time when I harbor any doubt that Macy is the greatest
on-screen character actor of our day, the top second banana of them
all, is when Gary Sinese is on-screen. Then I have no doubt that
Sinese is the uncrowned title-holder. Someday, there should be a
match race between these two, probably with Tom Hanks as the producer,
who will keep most of the gate’s receipts.
If Macy doesn’t get best supporting actor for this role, then Sinese
had better have a major role later in the year. Macy is just perfect.
The first imperfection is chronological. We see the newspaper headlines
of the 1929 stock market crash. Then we see scenes of a campground,
where the family of the young jockey-to-be Red Pollard now lives.
This obviously is 1932 or thereabouts — well into the depression.
Pollard’s parents then abandon him. The screen fades. The next image
says “six years later.” We see an adult Red Pollard beginning his
career as a jockey. Yet six years would make it at least 1938 —
the year of Seabiscuit’s great race with War Admiral, at the peak
of Pollard’s career. Then, without explanation, the movie takes
us to 1933, when Pollard is a journeyman jockey in Mexico. Couldn’t
anyone in the script department add?
The second imperfection is the repeated outbursts of both profanity
and obscenity by Pollard. This was not necessary for the script.
But it was necessary for the producers and script writers, who shape
public sensibilities by constantly assaulting public standards,
decade after decade. “Jesus Christ” is a repeated expletive on Hollywood’s
screens. Yet, in a way, these artistic masters of the celluloid
universe can assault the Christian West’s definition of profanity
only by affirming what they privately deny: that this is in fact
profanity. “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in
vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name
in vain” (Exodus 20:7).
If America were ever to go Islamic, Hollywood’s producers and performers
would not have a hero say on-screen that “Muhammed humped pigs.”
Muslims are less tolerant and less pluralistic than Christians.
Hollywood’s performers would rather attend the Academy Awards than
funerals, especially their own. They are therefore selective in
their choice and use of profanity.
It boils down to this, as movie reviewer and Orthodox Jew Michael
Medved has said so forcefully: It’s Hollywood vs. America
and Hollywood vs. Religion.
In one scene,
Seabiscuit’s owners and crew are in church. The owner and his wife
are singing a hymn. The trainer, his assistant, and the jockey aren’t.
That isn’t the Bible they’re reading, either. The last words of
the movie are the jockey’s voice-over. He tells us that the horse
and his human associates mutually healed each other. The best I
can say for that affirmation of redemption is that, while it gave
God no credit, at least it didn’t credit it to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At one point in the movie, Seabiscuit’s owner tells his wife, “You
show me something that’s perfect, and I’ll show you something that’s
not.” Hollywood has a war in progress, and this war keeps the industry
from producing perfect movies.
But this movie comes close.
is only one identifiable loser, Laura Hillenbrand, the book‘s
author, who somehow came to the conclusion that the story of Seabiscuit
needed re-telling, and who told it well. She is a true literary
entrepreneur. But she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Today,
she is so sick that she does not grant interviews.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome turned my wife into a pain-ridden semi-invalid
in 1987. She was cured in 1988 by a week of treatments on an electronic
machine. Actor James Coburn experienced similar deliverance from
the arthritis that had crippled his hands and his career. Subsequently,
both the inventor and his machine were forced out of the United
States by the U.S. government, a story I have told previously
on this Web site. Today, with only a few working machines remaining
in the possession of the inventor’s lone successor, one woman quietly
and without fanfare treats desperate people like Mrs. Hillenbrand.
She has only one requirement: that they do not go public about the
means of their deliverance.
Henry Ford’s innovation of mass production has been coercively re-directed
by the same government that the narrator of Seabiscuit tells
us became the agency that cared during the Great Depression. Were
it not for that caring bureaucratic friend, Mrs. Hillenbrand could
probably buy one of these machines for a few hundred dollars —
If that day ever arrives, one thing is sure: somewhere on its exterior,
there will be a stamp that says “Made in China.” Henry Ford’s innovation
lives on in the most unlikely places.