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Heaven's Gait 

Miraculous horse at center of inspiring true tale

Adapted from Laura Hillebrand's enormously popular bestseller, Seabiscuit is a movie that's sure to be acclaimed as much for what it isn't as for what it is.

It isn't a big-budget sci-fi extravaganza. It isn't a heavily hyped sequel. It isn't about special effects or stuntwork. It isn't a movie that relies on car chases for its climactic oomph. In short, it isn't your typical summer offering.

But contrary to popular belief, it also isn't just a movie about a horse.

OK, let's rephrase that. Seabiscuit does indeed tell the story of the underdog animal whose remarkable success during the 1930s inspired an entire nation. But just as importantly, it also relates the very human story of three individuals with the fortitude to overcome extreme handicaps, and on top of that provides a glimpse of a country reeling from the Depression and its attempts to right itself.

That's a tall order for one movie to fill, and if the picture occasionally seems to have bitten off more than it can chew, it's a forgivable sin, since writer-director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) nevertheless does a decent job of getting us involved in the plights of its central characters, regardless of what's happening in the world around them. Seabiscuit may be the name of the movie (and book), but it's clear that the human protagonists are just as vital and inspiring as the horse that enters their lives.

Jeff Bridges, who once played an automobile magnate in Tucker: The Man and His Dream, again climbs into the driver's seat for the role of Charles Howard, the millionaire car dealer who eventually turns his attention toward the world of horse racing and ends up placing his stock in an overweight, rebellious creature called Seabiscuit. Chris Cooper, fresh off his Oscar win for Adaptation, co-stars as Tom Smith, an introverted cowboy and capable horse whisperer hired by Howard to work as Seabiscuit's trainer. And Tobey Maguire, catching a cinematic wave in between Spider-Man features, headlines as John "Red" Pollard, a moody youngster who's tapped to ride Seabiscuit to victory.

"My horse is too small, my jockey's too big, my trainer's too old, and I'm too stupid to know the difference!" cracks Howard to the press, and indeed, it's a peculiar grouping -- the odd couple squared. But it's in the very eccentricities of the characters where the movie derives most of its power. The filmmaking in itself is rather conventional -- lots of burnished shots by cinematographer John Schwartzman, a score (by Randy Newman) that's swathed in uplifting Americana strains, plenty of scripted homilies about can-do Yankee perseverance -- yet the players themselves have a hungry determination that transcends their foibles and makes their exploits all the more inspiring. And if the nobility of the whole project occasionally feels oppressive, here's William H. Macy in a fictional role that was written specifically for him: "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin, a wise-cracking radio reporter whose mouth moves at a speed that repeatedly threatens to crack the sound barrier. The underdog Seabiscuit may steal away with a couple of races, but it's Macy who steals away with a scene or two.

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