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It takes 45 minutes for the titular thoroughbred to trot his glossy rump into Seabiscuit. But when he finally does show up, the horse and his star power are enough to get the goose flesh rippling. Cutting through a predawn fog rolling over Saratoga Race Course circa 1936, the beautiful beast—on the cusp of becoming an unlikely national hero—locks eyes with the stoic, studious man who will soon become his trainer. Up to that point, the Biscuit, a descendant of legendary quadruped Man o’ War, was deemed a loser: Smaller than most of his racing peers, the runt loved nothing more than to eat, sleep, and—well, that was about it. He showed little desire on the track; he limped when he walked. But when the animal spots Tom Smith through the fog on that sports-historic morning, our hirsute hero gives a defiant, awakening snort, and the translation is obvious: Let’s go kick some hind flank.

This much-delayed entrance is the good-guy equivalent of Spielberg’s withholding the shark in Jaws. It’s also the sole sign of restraint writer-director Gary Ross—a guy who was born with a box of Kleenex in his hand—shows in this sweeping, schmaltzy adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book. Ross, who frosted his often inspired Pleasantville with an unforgivable amount of heavy-handed racial-tolerance goo, piles so much triumph-of-the-spirit foofaraw on this flick—”It ain’t just the speed—it’s the heart”; “Sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance”; “You don’t throw away a life just ’cause it’s banged up a bit”—that it’s remarkable the movie pays off at all.

But it does, and often in blissfully uplifting ways. For this, you can credit Hillenbrand and her all-too-true tale of three beaten-down men and a gimpy beast. What man-overboard Ross somehow fails to realize is that the story’s crisis-plagued characters, life-vicious twists, and unique historical moment would be inspirational even without constant message alerts.

As the Great Depression ravages the American landscape, rags-to-riches San Francisco auto magnate Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) manages to stay wealthier than most, but he’s a lost soul nonetheless: After his young son is killed in a car accident, his wife packs up and leaves. At the same time, enigmatic loner Smith (Chris Cooper), as plain on the exterior as his name, wanders the West looking for work. He gets along swell with his four-legged friends, but he has little need for those two-legged annoyances that come with them. The most fascinating character in both the book and the movie, Smith never reveals his backstory—even Hillenbrand had a hard time digging up his particulars—but you get the feeling it’s a bleak one. And finally, there’s Johnny “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire). The son of Irish immigrants, he’s forced to leave his money-desperate family at a young age and, despite his relatively large size, take a job jockeying in small-stakes races.

For all his syrupy faults, Ross does have a knack for pacing and structure, and he faithfully honors Hillenbrand’s streamlined storytelling by deftly weaving myriad plots and a smattering of bleak black-and-white period stills. It also helps that Ross’ core trio of actors—and the numerous steeds who portray Seabiscuit—are some of the trustiest around. Bridges is a wonder as Howard; it’s heartbreaking to watch the somewhat confused look of joy spread across his jowly mug when he first meets savior and Wife No. 2, Marcela Howard (Elizabeth Banks), a horseplayer who encourages her new love to take up the hobby.

In one of the movie’s most charming moments, Smith—who’s been dragged out of a hobo encampment to work for Howard—does a molasses-slow double-take as a suddenly feisty Seabiscuit rages at wide-eyed handlers to his left while an unusually tall red-haired jockey does battle with some stableboy toughs on his right. The sly smile on pro’s pro Cooper’s face as his character gets an idea—perfect horse, perfect jockey, perfect together—is fantastic. And the first time we see Maguire as Pollard, he’s retching into a toilet, desperately trying to make weight for a race. The wide-eyed boyish wonder that Maguire gave Spider-Man’s Peter Parker has been shoved aside by a bitter toughness, as Pollard battles setback after setback but manages to keep that giant, jagged chip on his shoulder all the while. Even when Howard, Smith, and Seabiscuit show up to save Pollard, Maguire keeps the jockey a guarded, wounded man.

Even more valuable than the actors, though, is cinematographer John Schwartzman. Using all manner of mounted-camera wizardry, he makes Seabiscuit’s miraculous sprints for glory—in the competitions that made him front-page fodder for millions of down-on-their-luck fans—the most gripping action scenes of the summer. This is especially true of 1938’s “Race of the Century,” when underdog Seabiscuit, representin’ the West Coast, went one-on-one with East Coast thunderbolt and Triple Crown winner War Admiral. (So hyped was the race that bottom-line-watching bosses all over the country allowed their minions to take a half-day just so they could go home and listen on the radio.) Without using computer tricks, Schwartzman sends his fleet of cameras over, under, and around the easily spooked but hard-charging animals. The jockey’s-eye-views of darting into the tightest of ‘tween-beast spaces and fearlessly taking the rail are hold-your-breath spectacular.

That said, things get a little Rocky in the film’s final act. Without giving too much away: Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, flashing startling blue eyes in his first acting role, is puckishly perfect as the cocky and cool George “the Iceman” Woolf, who rides the champ after Pollard suffers yet another grisly setback. And the Biscuit himself also takes a tumble—and comes mighty close to taking a bullet. Both of these near-tragic twists—not to mention the rebuilding of a nation—allow Ross to goop things up with all manner of syrupy symbolism, silly slo-mos, and cue-the-bombast returns to glory. But no matter: Give credit to that say-hay horse for being fearless enough to run through Ross’ puddles of slop to victory. CP