Seldom does history provide its own metaphors as unequivocally as it did in 1940 with the impossible victory of Seabiscuit in the Santa Anita Handicap, who shocked by world by beating unbeatable odds late in his lackluster career. In the midst of the Depression, an economically and emotionally injured nation identified with the story of the hard-luck little horse described by the Baltimore Sun in 1938 as “this wild, crazy five-year-old who all his life had known only the uphill, knockdown, devil-take-the-loser route—any track—any distance—any weight—any time.” The situation is so representative, in fact, of the country’s desperate, violent belief in the possibility of change, that the film serves as well as a history lesson as anything else: children will more easily understand winning and losing important races than the abstract flux of national economies, but may appreciate the connection between the two (consider questions like, “why was the country so excited about this particular horse, rather than a Triple Crown winner like War Admiral?”).
The film follows not only Seabiscuit’s career, but the experiences of his owner, trainer, and jockey—all of whom have in common with the horse a disheartening and overwhelmingly difficult past to overcome. It is that exertion to overcome that becomes exciting, most powerfully represented in the racing scenes by dizzying photography and thunderous sound. As a warning, the PG-13 rating is merited (rough language and a brief and suggestive, though not explicit, scene with a prostitute), and sensitive parents may want to screen the film ahead of time. It also grows a little preachy at moments, encapsulating whole lessons in pithy bits of dialogue or earnest lines accompanied by swelling music—but nothing it says is wrong. The universal principle is the dogged persistence that produces its own rewards, which principle is as important and hopeful now as then; if it’s significant that a Depression-era society took to Seabiscuit in the 1930s, why then is the 2001 novel selling so successfully today? Unlikely, undersized, and injured himself, Seabiscuit is the embodiment of the tenacious American conviction that nothing is impossible, and that even in the most daunting circumstances, a man, a horse, or a nation can pick itself up off the floor and achieve.