Three broken men - bereaved millionaire Charles Howard, displaced cowboy Tom Smith and drifter Red Pollard - are brought together by a broken-down horse whose rescue, rehabilitation and racetrack heroics will mend their shattered lives.
During the 1930s a funny-looking little racehorse named 'Seabiscuit' became America's most unexpected idol, smashing records for speed, audience attendance and winnings in an amazing career that was avidly followed by millions of people who had two things in common. Mostly they were on their uppers, but they almost all had radios.
Laura Hillenbrand's non-fiction bestseller on the remarkable true story of 'Seabiscuit' and three men united in his cause - the owner, the trainer and the rider - is a tremendous read, and a recent documentary made by America's PBS confirmed that this tale comes ready-made with absolutely everything for a popular film: romance, tragedy, humour, triumph against the odds, athletic magnificence and, crucially, despairing people and a traumatised animal getting second chances in their lives.
For those whose reflex is to groan at the prospect of another film about Hope, Gary Ross' epic tapestry of hard-luck heroes, horse racing, the Great Depression and the power of an unquenchable spirit may be too much of a good thing. Inevitably, some of the finest points in Hillenbrand's book aren't here, but every speck of pathos, human drama, comic potential and equine suspense is magnified.
You are very aware that you are watching a superbly-crafted Hollywood movie that pats real-life into formula fit (Jeepers, do you think the limping 'biscuit will win that Last Big Race?), even though it comes with an educational strand.
This provides historical context, using archive stills and narration by historian David McCullough (whose voice, so familiar from major documentary series like Ken Burns' The Civil War, brings folkloric authenticity), highlighting the gulf between Haves and Have-nots and the rivalry between America's East Coast elitists and the upstart, self-made Westerners whose hopes 'Seabiscuit' carried along with undernourished jockey Red Pollard.
This is tip-top entertainment, though, with a great cast and racing sequences spectacularly conveying the power, excitement and terror amid 1,500 lb beasts threaded through the stampedes around a track by brave men who weigh less than supermodels.
The kind of careful thought Ross gave to the visuals in 'Pleasantville' is evident here, with horses trained foot-perfect for daring camera work, a feat made feasible by the key involvement of champion US jockeys. One of these, Racing Hall Of Famer Gary Stevens, playing Red's friend and rival George Woolf, cuts such a creditable figure in his silks, one would take him for an assured actor rather than a man who has won racing's Triple Crown events.
A gaunt and auburn-haired Maguire is terrific as the bedevilled, pugnacious poetry lover Pollard, and so is Bridges as the colourful car tycoon. Meanwhile, Cooper's terse Tom Smith suggests the mystic authority of a frontier horse whisperer with the slightest body language.
William H. Macy is a scream as the composite radio announcer whose hyperbolic racetrack reports are not only hilarious, but illustrate the impact of radio in creating a mass culture and how it was instrumental in making sporting events a nationwide obsession. Yes, and the crowd goes wild - precisely on cue.
Wonderfully lovely and uplifting. Ross could be accused of over-egging the pudding, but a yarn this handsome, heartwarming and thrilling can't lose.