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Seabiscuit, Pirates of the Caribbean

[Our Sunday Visitor, August 17, 2003]


"Seabiscuit" is the best big-story, big-heart movie of the summer. You know the type: it has underdogs, or rather an underhorse, and three men drawn to him by a common dream. Strings and cymbals crowd the soundtrack to the point of bumping elbows, and the action goes to slo-mo, then to black-and-white. An unseen narrator solemnly drops stones into the pond: "It was the beginning and the end of imagination at the same time," and the middle too, I’ll bet. Later, the Works Project Administration is described as "showing somebody really cared," which must be how it won the Strawberry Shortcake award.

This heartwarming "true story" has an ambivalent relationship with reality, though. The film is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 bestseller of the same title, and those who have read the book must expect to make allowances for film’s need to compress and streamline. What’s puzzling is that the film also inflates and invents, and forsakes good, meaty truth for easily-recognizable cutouts.

Jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), for example, has been given a ferocious temper, replacing the thoughtful, disciplined young man who carried a rosary and pocket Shakespeare. Pollard’s invented anger is given an invented cause: his impoverished parents are shown leaving the teen at a racetrack with the hollow promise that they’ll phone. In reality, Pollard’s parents were deceived by a family friend, who promised to care for the boy but abandoned him. Only once was Pollard’s dad able to save enough to travel to a race, but due to track rules, Pollard was not permitted to turn his head to look at his father in the stands. They never met again.

That’s the kind of material real life can provide, but it’s too delicate for a towering-strings movie. Instead we see trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) evaluating his wildly bucking new horse, Seabiscuit—then, hearing a fight, turning to see Pollard taking on four stablehands at once. He looks back at the rearing horse; then again at flailing Pollard; then back at the horse; then back at Pollard; then back at the horse?well, maybe not that many times, but it sure seemed like it. Director Gary Ross wants to make sure you get it, and on the DVD there will be an option to put this on endless loop.

It seems ungrateful to say that this film could have been more, when it offers so much. The autumnal landscapes are breathtaking and the races are thrilling. Chris Cooper is compelling as the understated Smith, and William H. Macy is delectable as the overstated "Tick Tock" MacGlaughlin, a radio announcer with every accessory but a spinning bowtie. David McCullough provides the narration, but his dry voice is so unmistakably that of Ken Burns’ PBS documentaries that it meshes badly with Hollywood storytelling. Segments featuring his trademark tones and black-and-white stills repeatedly interrupt the action, as if someone put a movie and a documentary in a blender and lightly pressed "frappe."

I particularly enjoyed a scene where owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) hands out Seabiscuit’s old horseshoes to fans. Howard liked to do this in real life, and one recipient passed on a shoe to his friend’s little girl. My mother still has it.

The moral of "Seabiscuit" is that damaged people, damaged horses, can overcome limitations through determination and hard work. No one, not even the horse himself, embodies this as well as the book’s author, Laura Hillenbrand. Over a decade ago she was suddenly stricken with a debilitating illness that leaves her at times unable to walk to the mailbox or even sit up. She expended her scant strength on the book, sometimes writing in longhand, lying down with her eyes closed. No wonder this story of stalwart overcomers inspired her; hers would have inspired them as well.


Pirates of the Caribbean

I went to "Pirates of the Caribbean" expecting not to like it. More precisely, intending not to like it. I expected a silly, noisy, content-less confection. And the concept of a movie based on a Disneyworld ride hovers somewhere near pathetic. What’s next, breakfast cereals? "Tony the Sugartiger: Fighter, Lover, Flake-ivore"?

What’s next turns out to be Eddie Murphy in "The Haunted Mansion," based on another Disneyworld ride. I don’t care who’s in it, when they’re down to "It’s a Small World After All," I’m not going.

But, slowly and grudgingly, I came to like "Pirates of the Caribbean." What won me over was the plot, and I know I just lost serious credibility as a reviewer. But, see, there’s this mysterious black ship manned by a crew who stole a cache of cursed Aztec gold. They hover between life and death; they can’t be killed, but also can’t feel, taste, or experience anything. In the moonlight they are revealed as ravaged skeletons, though in normal light they are reclothed in flesh, which makes for great quick-change footage during moonshadowed fight scenes. The pirates are doomed to this half-life until they return every piece of the gold, and each crew member offers some of his blood "to the heathen gods."

Well, it gets pretty suspenseful. The conclusion seemed to me perfectly paced, and perfectly staged as well, a swordfight around the glittering gold that approaches ballet. The script is funny, but not too funny, not so much that it undermines audience investment in the plot. There’s effective drama, too. A pirate returns to uncursed life just in time to die, and with faint wonder registers a sensation for the first time in twenty years: "I feel?cold." That’s pretty good stuff.

Adventure movies are liable to a flaw I call "the banality of goodness," that the good guy is, frankly, boring. The bad guy, swaggering and malevolent, exercises more fascination. Orlando Bloom (who plays the blond elf Legolas in the "Lord of the Rings") fills the good-guy role here, and though he meets the tall and handsome specs, he’s as complicated as a pane of glass. One suspects that he really *is* a good guy. The eye naturally looks for something more intriguing, but in this case the bad guy is not it; Geoffry Rush, as Captain Barbossa of the cursed ship, remains purely, unappealingly bad. He gets to deliver the only "Arrrr!" in the movie.

The eye candy turns out to be a third figure stirred into the usual two-character mix, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Johnny Depp plays him as a complete fruitcake. He lurches and weaves, flings his hands, mumbles, prances, and struggles to focus his eyes. What does it mean? At one point it’s suggested that Sparrow went mad after being marooned; at another, we think he might be a drunk, the kind of drunk who gets elaborate. There’s no real explanation. But Depp, who specializes in idiosyncrasy ("Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood"), makes this movie turn around the oddest screen pirate yet. "I think we’ve arrived at a very good place, spiritually, ecumenically, and grammatically," Sparrow concludes. Who could disagree?


Video Club

Couldn’t think of a movie about a horse on a ship, though for extra credit you can listen to Lyle Lovett’s song, "If I Had a Boat," about a little boy who thinks it would be a great idea. Instead, take the opportunity to see Errol Flynn in "Captain Blood" (1935), which established the pirate movie genre at a level never excelled. Orlando Bloom looks like Flynn, but Flynn just has more going on-for one thing, more narcissism. Discussion: Why is a flawed screen figure more interesting than a simple, "good" one? Does this hold true in real life?

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