Movie Takes

Secretariat

The great horse deserved a better ride than this.

By 11.15.10

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Apologies for the spoiler but the eponymous equine hero of Randall Wallace's Secretariat wins in the end. Of course you knew that anyway, as Secretariat was a real horse who wouldn't be remembered today if he hadn't won the big races. But the film-makers carry this one inescapable predictability over into the rest of their movie and end up with a whole lot more predictability than is strictly necessary. Unlike some critics, I don't insist that this is in itself a bad thing. Most of the world's best stories are pretty predictable, and the attempt to avoid predictability often comes off as artificial and, well, predictable. But the kind of predictability that Secretariat is guilty of is a result of a manufactured quality that goes beyond the usual Disney tendency to overproduce things with special effects and intrusive music. This is a movie that has been put together by formula. It has all -- well, most of -- the right things to say, about what it means to fight and not quit and eventually win, but it never manages to persuade you that it really believes any of them.

It's a pity because, of course, one would wish to have been able to like better a movie that the New York Times reviewer absurdly calls "Bible-thumping." You may think it worth seeing just for that, though I warn you that the only bit of the Bible actually thumped in it is a passage from the Book of Job about war horses and their love of battle that could have come out of any number of classical authors and offers no obvious offense even to a disbelief as delicate as that of the New York Times. It's true that, at moments of high emotion, there are also a couple of snatches on the soundtrack of the 1967 Gospel hit "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers that mention Jesus' washing of sins away, but there are no actual sins washed away on-screen -- and if there were one gets the distinct impression that it would be considered in very bad taste. Anyway, apart from a couple of bad guys who are quickly given their comeuppance, no one has any sins in need of washing away anyway.

Diane Lane plays Penny Chenery Tweedy who inherits what is supposed to be a broken-down and all but bankrupt horse farm in Virginia, though it looks like a pretty thriving operation to me. This is in 1969, and so the film naturally takes the opportunity to make her a feminist heroine, the little Denver "housewife" who takes on the condescending good old boys of the horse-racing fraternity and beats them at their own game. In order to do so, she virtually abandons her family but, like everything else in the movie, that turns out to be OK. Her husband, played by Dylan Walsh, is shown looking mildly peeved at her absences, but otherwise has no role to play until he reappears at the Belmont Ball the night before the climactic race to tell her that, although she has been (apparently) absent from the home for most of the last four years, she has managed somehow remotely to teach her daughters "what it is to be a real woman," which he couldn't have done. "And you've taught me something too," he says, though we never find out what. Anyway, she has "saved her family and saved her farm."

One of the daughters (Amanda Michalka), is a bit of a rebel who becomes, at least briefly, a hippie war protestor -- even in May of 1973, after the last American combat troops have left Vietnam. But this works out OK too, you'll be glad to know, and she turns up at the same pre-race Ball all begowned and bejeweled like any normal upper-class girl, to be bucked up by mom's words of wisdom about how, "Political beliefs change, but the need to do what you think is right doesn't." She is grateful for this information. Penny's other children are just part of the furniture. So, for that matter, are the other characters in the film. The two sexist bad guys (Graham McTavish and Forry Smith) -- a crooked trainer and a boastful fellow owner -- are mere caricatures, while Penny's new best friend and less attractive sidekick (Margo Martindale), her dad (Scott Glenn), her French Canadian trainer (John Malkovich), jockey (Otto Thorwarth), stable hand (Nelsan Ellis), and two crusty-kindly old men who help her out in times of need (Fred Dalton Thompson and James Cromwell) are mere types who are of little or no interest as people.

The rival-owner bad guy compares Secretariat, whose race times still hold the record at Churchill Downs and Belmont, to a machine, but it is really the movie that is like a machine. At any rate it is more like a machine than a movie, for it is made out of standardized parts as if it were on an assembly line. There are good things to be said for it. Its oft-reiterated moral about not giving up and achieving and winning, though marred by more than a tinge of the positive-thinking religion that sometimes comes close to supposing that wanting to win is a sufficient as well as a necessary condition of winning, is not the worst moral it could have, even if it seems cut out and pasted in. And its race photography is often spectacular and gripping. But the obstacles Penny has to overcome seem unreal and her struggles against them artificial. The inspirational stuff is formulaic, collected from other movies and dumped here. It doesn't arise naturally out of the story but is imposed on it. In the end, unlike its subject, the movie has no heart.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.