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Seabiscuit stays in race

Director John Ford once said there was no more naturally cinematic image than a running horse.

By most any measure, Seabiscuit was one of the runningest horses of all time. He lifted American spirits from the pit of the Great Depression, and his remarkable career became the most popular news story of 1938. It was to be expected that Hollywood would take to Laura Hillenbrand's phenomenally popular book, 'Seabiscuit: An American Legend,' as naturally as its cameras take to a horse in motion.

When compared to as big a winner as Hillenbrand's book, 'Seabiscuit' the film can merely place. The vast satisfactions of the book and its multitude of stories simply won't fit in a film of average feature length. But there's also something about this nonfiction epic that is too urgent or ebullient to play out as a miniseries, where its stride or rhythm might be lost. So the movie will have to do, and it does just fine Ñ if you can properly rein in your anticipation.

The appeal of the story is easy to see: It's a true tale of the underdog triumphant. But the circumstances Ñ the larger context of the Depression and the lives that intertwine within it Ñ make for a saga of salvation, of three men who save themselves by saving a horse.

Seabiscuit is rundown and seemingly run-out when he is bought by Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), an auto tycoon grieving the loss of his son and his marriage, to be rehabilitated by horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and ridden by jockey 'Red' Pollard (Tobey Maguire), both of whom are as down on their luck as the horse they come to love.

The story of any one of these men Ñ let alone the horse who looked more like a cow pony than a thoroughbred racer Ñ would make a movie. Writer-director Gary Ross, whose only previous directorial effort was the inventive Maguire vehicle 'Pleasantville,' often has to race through the back stories for the sake of the saga. But he is aided immeasurably by his three perfectly cast leads: Maguire with those eyes that seem alert to everything around him without losing a sense of introspection; Cooper with the eloquent plainness that has become a sort of trademark; and especially Bridges, whose ability to be expansive and intimate at once serves Ross' style effortlessly. You would buy a used car (or a supposedly used-up horse) from this man.

Ross sells the celebratory aspects of what is undeniably an inspiring piece of history. His use of Randy Newman, a master of Americana, for the score, and David McCullough (if you don't know the name, you'll definitely know the voice) as narrator will seem just right to some and perhaps too much for others. And the sunlight-haloed cinematography of John Schwartzman (who made even the carnage sparkle in 'Pearl Harbor') may cast too ideal a light on it all.

But the fact remains that there is a truly great story here, strong enough to lead those elevated intentions by at least a nose. As Ford said, you can just cut to a running horse and watch things stretch out and accelerate while your heart races to catch up.