Seabiscuit's Joyride

Editor's note: With every Democratic candidate comparing himself to the scrappy hero, and now with seven Oscar nominations, Seabiscuit refuses to be left in the dust. This essay, which originally ran in July, is just as scrappy.

The behavior of the audience packed into the Uptown Theater in Washington, D.C. for a matinee showing of "Seabiscuit" last summer was not easy to explain. Washingtonians are serious about their careers, urbane in their affect and critical of their entertainment. Given those attributes, the first surprise was that they were there at all. The second was that in the course of this guileless Disneyesque flick about a small-time racehorse that makes it big, the crowd erupted into spontaneous applause and whoops of exultation not once but twice.

The success of Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling book and the popularity of the movie it inspired are kind of a headscratcher. For starters, this is a story about a horse. While that alone is reason enough to get me and most of my favorite people to shell out eight clams, I understand we're in the minority. Americans haven't cared about horse racing for decades. Try this: Name the winner of last year's Breeder's Cup Classic. I can't either, but in the world of horse racing that's tantamount to having no earthly idea who won the World Series last year. The Breeder's Cup, not the Triple Crown, is the sport's true golden ring.

Beyond the commercial limitations imposed by subject matter is the fact that Hillenbrand's book and the film, directed by Gary Ross ("Pleasantville"), are unapologetically wide-eyed. Except for a few expletives, they're both good clean family fun. Since when does the American public lap up feel-good movies with no dirty jokes, no romantic storyline to speak of and no special effects?

Yet the book has sold three million copies and luxuriated for 68 weeks on the bestseller list. The film pulled in $21 million in its first weekend and fed a bizarre little craze in the runup to its release: Suddenly there were Seabiscuit model horses, Seabiscuit tours, Seabiscuit cookies, dutiful articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Hillenbrand and two of the film's stars, Tobey Maguire and William H. Macy, were invited to the White House for a screening. That didn't happen to Ang Lee when "The Incredible Hulk" came out.

What's going on here?

In a disorienting, echoey way, history is trying to repeat itself. As the book, the movie and every article written about either have been at pains to explain, the real-life Seabiscuit in 1938 was a bigger newsmaker than Howard Hughes, Adolf Hitler or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If what Hillenbrand would have us believe is true, Seabiscuit's fairy-tale rise from obscurity to fame captured the imagination and raised the spirits of a down-and-out nation starved for a working-class hero. Amid the grimness and want of Depression-era America, suddenly there were Seabiscuit train rides, Seabiscuit parlor games, Seabiscuit hats.

Based on a true story, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" is at its heart a formulaic tale. It's "The Great Gatsby" at the racetrack, a story of American pluck in the face of overwhelming odds. It stars a cast of underdogs with Something Special: an assembly-line-worker-turned-auto-mogul who made it on good old Yankee ingenuity, a laconic horse trainer who does things his own peculiar way, a scrappy jockey who quotes Shakespeare and a small, abused racehorse with a huge heart only the wise can see. In 1937, during the darkest depths of the Great Depression, these four mongrels had a go at the sport of kings and beat the bluebloods at their own game. In 1938 the knobby-legged upstart from California met the regal Triple Crown winner War Admiral, darling of the East Coast racing establishment, in a match race and left the champion in the dust. It was a triumph for Everyman.

The underdog theme that suffuses the entire Seabiscuit enterprise extends, weirdly, even unto the writing of the book and the making of the movie. To write the book, Hillenbrand spent four years slogging through chronic fatigue syndrome, a harrowing illness she chronicled in a recent issue of the New Yorker. Many days she wrote in bed. As for the film, its blockbuster potential was considered sufficiently scant that three studios -- Universal, DreamWorks and Spyglass -- split the $87 million risk between them.

Altogether this package exerts an irresistible pull on the American psyche nourished on the sweet milk of the rags-to-riches tale. But the second wave of Seabiscuitmania has a tinge of sadness about it. It's nostalgia, with all that emotion's bittersweet affection and regret. This is not 1937 and America is not a nation of underdogs. We are Rome after the fall of the Republic, at the peak of our powers, inevitable decline on the horizon. So thorough and unassailable is our economic, political and military domination of the globe that the French have coined a wry term for us: hyperpower. If we look to today's 6.1 percent unemployment rate as a reason to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps we find worse situations around us. If we look to our president for inspiration we find a coddled aristocrat who still doesn't do his homework.

By all indications we have become that overbearing entity it was once our calling to unseat. Yet the myth demands that we be cast as the hardscrabble underdog, individually and collectively. Witness the popularity of Funny Cide, the Derby and Preakness winner from Nowheresville, New York, purchased for cheap by a group of friends who knew jack about horses. So we rally around the few real-life underdogs and watch yesterday's heroes on the big screen, cheering them on in their moments of victory.

The power of the Seabiscuit story then is the power of Seabiscuit now: its ability to reach unerringly into the American soul and strike a deep chord that resonates with a mythic, larger-than-life belief in who we are as Americans and, more importantly, who we yet may become. If we have to make some adjustments to the facts along the way to keep that belief alive, well, maybe that too is the American way.

Traci Hukill is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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