Its sports-page crossover potential be damned, this alleged paean to the Depression-era racehorse is actually an undisguised love letter to the New Deal. And given that social responsibility is hardly a hot topic right now -- in movies, or anywhere else in the public discourse -- "Seabiscuit" deserves to flourish as a reminder that our proud nation once followed a higher principle than every man for himself.
Voice-over narration unashamedly asserts the parallels between FDR's grand initiative and the rise of the title animal, whose fleet feet, we're told, led the charge of national recovery. Telling us the story as it shows it to us is just one of the sweeping gestures indulged by this movie, which exhumes every underdog cliché that's ever trolled for an Oscar: Gooey strings abound, and the Academy-wooing performances sometimes betray scant realization that there are other actors on the screen. But damned if all the big-picture grandstanding doesn't work more often than not.
The only genuine misstep is the casting of Tobey Maguire as jockey Red Pollard, who was separated from his parents by the Depression and found a kindred angry spirit in Seabiscuit, the misfit horse he rode to glory. Maguire just doesn't do outraged disenfranchisement well, and his okey-doke acceptance of the kindness shown him by benefactor Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) pushes the movie perilously close to the notion that economic redress is a cultural-engineering project for the saintly rich. But it's one of those aforementioned voiceovers that saves the whole ball game (or horse race) by reminding us that endeavors like the WPA didn't deal in charity per se: They restored to America's men and women the dignity that was their due. Remembering that freedom is a right and not a gift makes "Seabiscuit" a winner by a nose.