Posts Tagged ‘Diane Lane’

Review: Secretariat

Friday, October 8th, 2010

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.

Wilmington on Movies: Secretariat, Life As We Know It, Buried, You Again, and Let Me In

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Secretariat (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.; Randall Wallace, 2010

If you’ve got a great story, in life or in movies, the best thing to do is usually to let it fill your heart, tell it clearly, keep it straight and pure, and don’t load it up with agendas and tack-ons. The new movie Secretariat has a great story, an almost unbelievable (but mostly fact-based) story — the incredible saga of the horse who won the 1973 Triple Crown, blew away the field, set unmatchable records, and is still regarded almost universally as the greatest race horse who ever lived and ran. (Almost?)

Secretariat, Postered

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

A new poster for the greatest race horse ever.