MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Review: Secretariat

Secretariat, the horse, was a big, glossy chestnut colt who won the Triple Crown and is widely regarded today as perhaps the best racehorse who ever lived. Secretariat, the movie, is big, glossy cinematic comfort food for the family in troubled times, grilled cheese and tomato soup wholesomeness to soothe the soul and take the viewer back to simpler, happier times.

In spite of its title, though,the film is not the story of how Secretariat the horse won the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years — not exactly, anyhow. This is the story of his owner, Penny Chenery, who’s played in the film by a luminous, angelic, glowingly lit Diane Lane (and can I just say as an aside here that, if you have reason to have someone make a movie about your life, you could do worse than having Lane play you on the big screen).

Equally well cast is John Malkovich as Secretariat’s eccentric French-Canadian trainer, Lucien Laurin. Malkovich handles playing the flamboyant Lucien as effortlessly as you would expect of him; every time he’s on the screen he dominates your attention, and yeah, he occasionally munches a little scenery, but he’s fun as hell to watch.

Lane, to her credit, plays Chenery as befits honoring the woman who became one of the first female members of The Jockey Club — with spunk and vivacity, charm and fierce determination. It’s an excellent performance on Lane’s part, which makes it unfortunate that the story almost completely excises the most interesting feminist aspects out of the film, making Penny Chenery into almost a mildly rebellious PTA-mom extraordinaire, well-coiffed and resplendently elegant in heels and dresses even as she takes on the men of the racing world and kicks their chauvinistic asses.

What with the film being set roughly from 1970 to 1973, it surely must have been tempting for someone involved in this film to play up more the political aspects of the story. We have all the key ingredients here: Chenery, who held a B.A. from Smith College and had attended Columbia Business School, married Columbia law student John Tweedy and spent the next 18 years playing housewife and mother before getting roped back into her father’s racehorse business when he grew ill 1968.

But the script, based on a book about Secretariat by Bill Nack, skimps on showing us the prejudices Chenery surely faced as a woman in a predominantly male world.

There must surely have been a lot more marital tension, resentment, and familial strife in her Denver homebase when Chenery abandoned her post as general of hearth and home to pursue a racing dream than what’s depicted in the movie, which makes it seem like it all happened seamlessly. The former housewife turns prominent career woman, while her endlessly supportive husband and fresh-faced, perpetually happy and understanding children cheer her on from the sidelines. Really? Only in a Disney movie. I’m sure in retrospect her husband and kids are proud of Chenery’s achievements, but I just didn’t buy at all that her victories in her career came without any cost on the homefront.

Speaking of homefront, wasn’t there a war (excuse me, “conflict”) going on around then too? There’s complete lack of cultural context in the film, which barely tosses a reference to the political stew brewing in America at the time by giving us A.J. Michalka (who, together with her sister Alyson, compromises popular Disney group AJ and Aly) as daughter Kate, a well-off white girl who wades in the shallow end of the political pool by playing dress up with hippie clothes, painting protest signs, and writing a political play.

But this is a Disney movie with a Disney star as the daughter, kids, so Kate is a clean and wholesome sort of hippie with clean-cut, wholesome wannabe hippie friends who don’t, apparently, believe in the free sex, power to the people and pot-smoking of that era. Or at least, they certainly don’t inhale. This film could have taken some lessons from, say, television’s Wonder Years, which at least attempted to address the tension of those times within its storyline while still being entertaining.

Also, while we see Chenery get some crap from men around the racetrack, we never once see another woman question Chenery’s commitment to her husband and children because her work requires her to travel away from her family. I get comments about that myself in 2010 over my own work travel, and I just find it impossible to believe that no one ever pulled that on Chenery in the 1970s.

On the other hand, while I do think the film considerably glosses over the politics affecting the country at the time, I don’t see it as particularly being bait for conservative Christians in flyover states or Tea Party wives. Penny Chenery was no obedient little wifey. The real Penny Chenery may or may not consider herself a feminist, but certainly by the actions she took she certainly set a feminist example that a woman can be a wife and a mother and also chase a dream. And that’s not a bad message for a little girl, even one living in 2010, to get.

I’m not saying I disliked Secretariat overall. It’s well paced and edited, glossy and golden and gorgeously shot. Every scene, practically, is bathed in a golden glow, as if we’ve died and gone to horseracing heaven. The horses coats glisten with sheen, there are slow-mo shots where we see every muscle rippling under shiny coats in exquisite detail. There are shots during the racing sequences here that could be framed and hung in museums, and the visuals alone make Secretariat compelling to watch.

Director Randall Wallace does a good job as well of overcoming the considerable hurdle that we know going into the film how it ends. I mean, it’s Secretariat. It’s not a spoiler to say that he wins the Triple Crown and goes onto become a prolific producer of very valuable racehorse semen. The excitement and tension in the film doesn’t really come, therefore, from there being uncertainty as to the outcome, which is a challenge from a filmmaking standpoint.

Wallace makes the race scenes thrilling to watch, even though we know that (most of the time) Secretariat, in spite of his habit of starting at the back of the pack, would come out of nowhere with a near-miraculous burst of speed to win. The racing montage of Secretariat’s wins leading up to the Triple Crown races in particular was edited artfully, and the horse’s big battles against rival Sham are tense and exciting even though you know the outcome already.

But I almost felt sorry for Sham, a beautiful, athletic racehorse in his own right who also had the heart of a champion but here is painted as the “bad guy” standing in the way of what feels in retrospect like Secretariat’s foreordained place in racing history. And this is a problematic element in the film, one that’s not similar, actually, to the issues I had with The Social Network‘s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a villain for the sake of storytelling.

Here, the role of necessary bad guy is played by Sham’s trainer Pancho Martin, played by Nestor Serrano (presumably because the script and director so guided him) as a dark, smoldering, cocky, chauvinistic and inherently unlikable asshole of a guy. And hey, for all I know maybe Martin was that kind of guy, but this portrayal of him felt unnecessarily over-the-top.

Sham and Secretariat were rivals on the racetrack, yes, but Sham really was a good horse who just had the misfortune (or bad karma, maybe) to be born the same year as perhaps the best racehorse in history. It’s too bad for him, really, and I think a bit of a disservice to that horse to paint him as a classic Disneyesque sidekick-to-the-bad-guy character.

Think of the story from the point of view of Panco and Sham: Pancho has this great colt, maybe the best colt of his career, in Sham — who, in fact, also broke track records even when he lost to Secretariat. But poor Sham was doomed to be relegated to the horse beaten by Secretariat, kind of the racing world equivalent to playing “second shepherd on the right, recognized only by his mother” in the church Christmas pageant.

Andrew O’Hehir made some interesting points in his write-up of the film about Secretariat being custom-made for the same Christian segment that made a surprise hit out of last year’s The Blind Side, and as a story it’s certainly true that it follows that film’s successful formula almost to a tee. I’m not sure I’d argue for an Oscar for Lane for this role, but neither would I discount the appeal of the chipper, perky, ladylike woman who overcomes odds to the Academy voters.

I’m not sure I agree, though, with O’Hehir’s accusations of blatant Tea-Party pandering and overt racism in Secretariat, other than perhaps to a degree in the portrayal of Pancho-as-villain. Is it true that the only other significant minority in the film is Secretariat’s groom? Well, yes. Secretariat’s groom, Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) was black, there’s no getting around that. I can see the argument that the portrayal of Sweat in the film is perhaps a little “Uncle Remus,” but I don’t know that it’s an unrealistic portrayal, given the time and setting of the story.

The world of horse racing is a sport that’s almost exclusively the domain of rich white men and their rich white wives who like to wear big hats to the Kentucky Derby while they sip mint juleps, which is what makes Penny Chenery’s place in racing history that much more interesting. I guess I take issue more with the castration of the feminist element, as it were, than with any latent racism in the film.

Overall Secretariat is to me an interesting blend of the feel-good Disney family movie and an attempt to make a classier, artsier movie out of a racehorse story while maybe angling for the Oscars, but that doesn’t make it an unenjoyable film. As a film to see with the kids, it’s not a bad choice, even if for me, it’s painted a little too broadly and uninterestingly to launch it significantly into year end or awards consideration. Secretariat plays as more of a feel-good crowd-pleaser than compelling art, but for what it is, that’s probably good enough.

10 Responses to “Review: Secretariat”

  1. phoenix says:

    the timing is great its been a long 20 years since he passed. with the lunacy in today s world it was an enjoyable event. people that like violent or outerspace movies will have a hard time coping with ingenue of this flick. diane john the cast even otto gave me good jollies.

  2. sara says:

    With the exception of Diane Lane this was a badly scripted and acted movie.I still cant understand why they didnt get a jockey that someone has heard of.Allthough the part of the jockey was small,it would have been nice to see a face that I recognized.I give this movie a D –

  3. Lisa says:

    While I will agree that it won’t win any cinematic awards, and for me it was hard to watch because I am a racetracker so I have to take everything Hollywood does with a horse, with a grain of salt. Still, they are providing entertainment for the general public, not the horse racing industry. Any subject or industry that gets a movie made about it never comes up to the standards of the industry of which it’s made. I don’t care if it’s about baseball, medicine or law enforcement. All things in the general life of “that” industry cannot be portrayed 100%. And you have to cram it into 120 mins and let the people enjoy it!!!

    The casting directors aren’t looking for “reconizable” people to be cast as jockeys. Riders that are well known usually do not have the time to make a movie. I don’t think it beats Seabiscuit in any category but it’s one I will definately add to my library. Just enjoy it for what it is.

  4. Brian Russell says:

    Why do lefties try to find sexism or racism in EVERYTHING. Racing is a totally even playing field – if you have the money. The leading owner is world is an Arab. The best US trainer in the last 15 years (recently deceased) was Jewish. The top jockeys (who make millions per year) are virtually all Hispanic. MC Hammer (who is black) owned one of best fillies in the last 20 years and came out on top in a rivalry with a filly owned by Carl Icahn. This writer did no research about her subject matter or she would not have made her comment about it being the domain of “rich white men and their rich white wives”. The main problem with this movie is that they turned it into fiction. Chenery was not an underdog facing financial problems. In fact, she won the Kentucky Derby the PREVIOUS year with Riva Ridge. The performance clause in the movie intimated that she could lose the stallion deal if the horse lost. In reality, she could only lose it if he were not fertile. In short, both the movie and this writer’s stated concerns are both fiction.

  5. Julian D. says:

    The following was submitted by John Tweedy, Penny Chenery’s youngest son, as a comment on Roger Ebert’s blog. Exceptionally written and a must read.

    “As Penny Chenery’s youngest son, I am fascinated by “Secretariat’s” reception by critics, and the dialogue between Ebert and O’Hehir is to me the most interesting so far. Rather than taking sides about whether the movie is “good” or “bad” (I am far too close to evaluate its merits), I want to comment on the value I see in both reviewers’ perspectives. From their conflicting angles, each shines a light on something I believe to be true about both the movie and the events that gave rise to it.
    I understand O’Hehir’s perception of something relentlessly, indeed forcedly, upbeat about the story, perhaps masking a troubling reality underneath. The movie does, indeed, glamorize and improve on my family’s situation in the early 1970s, as it sanitizes the cultural context of that era. In real life, we Tweedys were more riven and frayed by the large and small conflicts of the time, and by the pressures of celebrity into which we were suddenly thrust. The wars between our parents were more bitter, the marriage more broken, and we kids were more alienated and countercultural than the movie depicts. During the pre-race CBS broadcast at the Belmont, Woody Broun interviewed my dad, my siblings and me, asking Jack whether he was the “power behind the throne.” He gamely (and for me now, poignantly) replied that he was proud of his wife, his kids, “and the horse.” Mom had wanted us to be all together for that interview, but away from the cameras we were each living in a separate world. The movie navigates this terrain with a combination of erasure, gentleness, and tact, and from the point of view of my family’s privacy, I am grateful.
    But Ebert is right that there is something more — and something better — at work in the movie than simply airbrushing over painful truth. My mother has always known that the “Secretariat story,” and her role in it, filled a deep cultural need. While the country was convulsed by feminism, Watergate and Vietnam, Penny took pains to present as a wife and mother, offering a wholesome, western, maternal female image that paired beautifully with the heroic, powerful male icon that Secretariat was becoming. Our President may have been a Machiavellian liar, our soldiers denounced as baby-killers, and our fathers excoriated as chauvinist pigs as they commuted grimly to work. But here came Secretariat, deeply male, muscular and graceful, his chest lathered with sublimated sex. And on that day in June 1973, when he blew away the field in the Belmont Stakes, he transcended argument, rivalry, even transcended sport itself. In that moment Secretariat gave my family, and gave the public, something like grace.
    Now we are again in a cultural moment of war and dissension. My sense is that the movie’s creators didn’t feel the need to portray the convulsions of the early 1970s, in part because today’s audiences carry the burdens of our current convulsions into the theaters with them, hoping to escape briefly to a world they can believe in and admire. I think the movie is offered to satisfy the old hunger for a kingly male and a queenly female, who together strive for something beyond themselves, who seek victory, and achieve grace. Disney has long been in the business of telling this kind of story. The best such films rise to the level of archetype, while lesser ones sink into the mire of cliche, or worse. Whether “Secretariat” succeeds in this mythic leap is for critics to argue, and for audiences to decide. Personally, I’m enjoying the ride, as well as the critical dust it’s kicking up.”

    John Tweedy

  6. F. McGinnis says:

    I bet on Secretariat for the 3rd win, sat with one of the shareholders of Bold Ruler, chated with Lucien, and in general, even though I was 27 years old led a real life in which my friends did not carry signs protesting Viet Nam. It is obvious the reviewer does not have a handle on the times in which Secretariat is set. We were not glued to internet, tv, or even radio at the time. We lived live in our surrounds and enjoyed other people more fully. So what if the owner had a bumpy patch in her marriage. That’s real life, too. She wasn’t a baby killer, and women pushing women’s rights in the 70’s were varied in character, not cardboard studies. Ms. Voynar missed this critical point. I doubt she understands the real movement of that time and who was the money behind it. I loved watching Secretariat win. I loved winning a lot of money. I was happy in the 70’s. Give it a break.

  7. Darby A. Gray says:

    Mr. Tweedy: It is a major victory for humanity when someone who was present and actively involved throughout an historically significant process freely shares his memories and interpretations of those events. Such rare donations help the rest of us more fully appreciate that the realities of actual lives are vastly more diverse and complex than any literary construction, however well contrived and presented. Thank you for your insights and your candor.

  8. US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has explained the sluggish recovery could possibly necessarily mean the financial institution will take further action around the economic system.

  9. Marilyn Harrison says:

    Secretariat was the greatest horse that ever lived and I am thrilled that this movie was made so that no one will ever forget that. Randall Wallace is a genius director and the script was fantastic. Starting off with that Bible verse was an inspiration and hints right away that the story is about something a little loftier than “just another horse”. The way it was all put together makes it my favorite movie of all time at this moment in time. I watch the Belmont Race part every morning before I go to work. Back in the 70’s I LOVED BIg Red and watched all his races that I could on our console color tv with just a plain old antenna. It was thrilling, inspiring, and awsome back then, and it’s thrilling, inspiring and awesome now. BIG THANKS to everyone who had a part in making this film so that we can all OWN it now

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