Movies: Secretariat

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by Raj Ranade

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More great moments in movie marketing: the new film Secretariat is being pushed by its production company Disney as the The Blind Side of 2010. The intention was to highlight the appeal of these films with strong moral values and quasi-religious themes for faith-based audiences. The side effect, quickly pointed out by those who already saw unpleasant racial overtones in Side, is the unfortunate comparison of a movie about a strong-willed woman who helps shape a homeless black man into a world-class athlete with a movie about a strong-willed woman who helps shape a horse into a world class animal athlete. Awkward!

The marketing strategy, of course, isn’t director Randall Wallace’s fault, although he can probably be blamed for the odd religious pandering in the film that inspired the campaign in the first place. But he deserves credit for creating a well-oiled crowd-pleasing machine in his story of the legendary Triple Crown winning racehorse. It’s all 100% Hollywood calculation, with all the irritating condensation and fabrication of history that entails – an efficient delivery device for viewers seeking clockwork doses of goopy uplift, but a surprisingly entertaining source of (largely unintentional) comedy for more skeptical viewers.

Secretariat starts before the birth of the eponymous horse, with the story of Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), a housewife who took over her ailing father’s horse farm and set to breeding and managing horses herself. The odds, you may be shocked to learn, were against her, due to the all-male insularity of the horse-racing world and the boneheaded sexism of her husband, but Chenery luckily possessed a potent mix of one part diligence, one part persistence, and three parts horse-racing metaphors for life. Lane is tremendously compelling in the role, all fiery heartland grit in a Good Housekeeping cashmere-sweater package, and Wallace makes sure her appearances on screen are awash in more gauzy light than a Thomas Kinkade painting, adding a visual halo to her saintly portrayal (see above photo). It’s almost enough to sell moments like her multiple attempts to seemingly communicate with her horse by gazing deeply into his eyes (but even Meryl Streep would have trouble with that kind of thing).

Chenery wins the rights to a promising young foal through a coin toss with a rich businessman, and she and her young son are right there in the stable to witness the birth of the famous horse (this is the kind of movie where young children gaze in wonder at the miracle of new life – one suspects a child’s reaction to an actual live birth might be more along the lines of abject terror). And with the help of an eccentric trainer (John Malkovich, trying very little to be anything other than John Malkovich) and a devoted groom (True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis, in a cringe-inducing performance that’s all stereotypical shuckin’ and jivin’ soul), Secretariat sets to-date unbroken records at the Kentucky Derby and Belmont and beats foes like rival horse Sham (Wallace does his very best to make Sham wear a sort of evil horse sneer) and his loud-mouthed braggart trainer Pancho Martin. As a result, Chenery’s family warmly reconciles and America’s national wounds are salved for a little bit.

All of which, it could be said, has more to do with a certain equine digestive byproduct than it does with any kind of truth. Notably, the screenplay for the film is “suggested by,” not “based on” a book about the horse, which allows Wallace to omit facts, like the troubles of Chenery’s marriage and an additional Derby win with Riva Ridge that would obliterate a lot of the warm-‘n’-fuzzies that the film tries to generate. The same goes for the hazy nostalgia with which the film depicts the period of 1969 to 1973. I’m not saying that Secretariat should have been a metaphor for Watergate or Vietnam, but I was taken aback at how dismissive the film is of the era’s raw tumult (Penny’s eldest teen daughter is the only representation of any political discord, but her comically inept protest pageants and her Che Guevara costume party protests make an anti-war stance seem like a particularly awkward phase of puberty). The best kinds of movie uplift come with a dose of jagged truth (Rocky, it is often forgotten, lost that first title fight), and Secretariat is far too focused on sanding away any hint of an unpleasant edge. It’s that kind of wishy-washy decision making that also results in the film’s disingenuous religious pandering – the refusal to actually explore any kind of religious meaning or feeling makes the film’s spiritual gestures (book-ending quotations of Scripture, the use of the hymn “Oh Happy Day” in a few key scenes) seem like ploys to lure a religious demographic into seeing a thoroughly secular movie.

All that said, the movie is effective enough. Lane has enough charisma to carry much of the film, Wallace times his emotional button pressing pretty well, and the audience in my screening applauded when Secretariat crossed the film’s last finish line. The movie’s prime attraction is indeed in those races, which depart from convention as much as the rest of the film adheres to it, sticking DV cameras right next to the jockeys in an attempt to capture the brute force and shaky-cam intensity of the races. Of course, the thrill of cinematic horse-racing probably isn’t the most potent selling point for Lexington audiences, particularly when admission to Keeneland (where most of the film’s races were shot) is cheaper than a movie ticket.

It’s certainly not likely that you’ll find a Secretariat out at the tracks these days, but you won’t find manufactured inspirational product out there either – just the unvarnished truth of horses in stride, nature’s majesty and grace in motion.

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Click here for Secretariat premieres at Kentucky Theater.

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